FRESNO -- Finding out that China Peak rated as California's most environmentally friendly ski resort was quite a surprise.
Not because I think China Peak was undeserving of the A it got for scoring 91.7 percent on last week's Ski Area Environmental Scorecard. That isn't the case at all.
It's just that I remember the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition's previous grades, issued Dec. 7, 2011. China Peak (still listed under its previous name of Sierra Summit) received a C with 67.4 percent of the total points.
So in a little more than a year, the Huntington Lake resort shot from 14th in the state's environmental rankings to No. 1.
How is that possible? Let's start with the basics. The Ski Area Citizens' Coalition is a nonprofit that for the past 11 years has evaluated the environmental stewardship of ski areas throughout the West. Results are based on 35 criteria, and data used in the report are obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests through the U.S. Forest Service as well as independent research. This includes some self-reporting by resorts.
Of the 35 criteria, expansion is the most heavily weighted. An operator could be greener than the Jolly Green Giant. But if new runs or facilities outside the area's existing footprint are added, the resort will be heavily docked. Resorts also are judged on watershed protection and conservation, energy efficiency, transportation, and environmental practices and policies.
A resort's general attitude toward being evaluated appears to play a role, as well.
While China Peak topped the list, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit ranked second to last and last in California; each got a D with 57.8. Those resorts are owned by Snow Summit Ski Corp., which also owned China Peak until selling it in May 2010 to a group headed by Tim Cohee.
According to Rich Bailey, China Peak's longtime director of mountain operations, it's not that the resort all of a sudden adopted better environmental practices the moment Cohee took over. It's more that the former owners didn't care a lick what some environmental group thought.
"Tim puts a brighter polish on things," Bailey said. "The previous regime didn't encourage us to make the effort." Cohee, who came to China Peak after 17 years as senior executive at Kirkwood, learned that lesson the hard way. He said few resorts paid attention to the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition until the group gave Kirkwood an F in 2007, and that bold headline got splashed across the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle's Business section.
"My phone started ringing and the next thing you know, it exploded," Cohee said. "(Kirkwood) happened to be a resort that didn't give those guys the time of day." The following year, with Kirkwood in full cooperation mode, it got a B+.
So do ski resorts that cooperate get better grades than those that don't? According to Anna Olsen of the Sierra Nevada Coalition, which compiled this year's data, that "definitely helps us." "But there are quite a few ski resorts that did not self-report at all that still received A's," Olsen added, without naming any.
China Peak went beyond self-reporting. Bailey met with Olsen when she visited and took time to answer all her questions.
Again, this isn't meant to suggest China Peak didn't deserve the A.
The resort has enacted a number of environmentally friendly practices ranging from a no-idling policy for all snowcats and snowmobiles to installing low-flow toilets and showers to encouraging (and rewarding) employee car pools. The base area is covered with wood chips, which helps control erosion, and dead or fallen trees that other resorts might remove as an eyesore are typically left standing in the name of habitat enhancement.
And China Peak is very picky about litter. So if you're caught throwing something from a chair lift, be prepared for a 30-day suspension.
"We've been given the stewardship of these lands along with the Forest Service, and we take that responsibility very seriously," Bailey said.
Can I tell you with certainty that China Peak is California's most environmentally friendly ski resort? No. But what I can say is that ownership and key employees would like it to be. And that's at least half the battle.
China Peak received about 3 inches of fresh snow from Tuesday's storm, which was less than expected but enough to improve surface conditions.
China Peak will have all seven of its chair lifts, three moving carpets, its lift-served tubing hill and the Chinatown Terrain Park open this weekend.
Owner Tim Cohee said the resort will be open through April 21, at least, and that season passes for 2013-14 go on sale March 14. Check www.skichinapeak.com for details.