Olympics will help showcase some of America's most beautiful scenery to visitors and television viewers around the globe. But some environmentalists say preparations for the games, and the games themselves, are doing permanent damage to their spectacular Utah setting.
The International Olympics Committee has adopted the environment as one of the three pillars of the Olympic movement, along with sport and culture. At Friday's opening ceremonies, environmentalist and ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau represented the environment in Salt Lake City, at the first winter Olympics games to set a goal of zero emissions and zero waste.
But what the world sees of the Games on television, or even by attending the Olympics, is the culmination of a decade long process of transforming the landscape into an Olympics venue. This public fašade can cover up some serious problems, warns the Salt Lake City based conservation group Citizens' Committee to Save Our Canyons, an organization dedicated to preserving the natural areas of the Wasatch Range - ground zero for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
"Short of war or great natural disaster, hosting the Olympic Games is one of the greatest challenges that any community can face," notes the group. "The effects are significant for at least a decade before the games and will extend well into the post-games era."
While Save Our Canyons (SOC) did not take an official position opposing Salt Lake City's successful bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics, the group watched carefully to see whether Utah could accommodate the Games without major threats to Salt Lake's mountain environments. Where possible, the SOC also intervened to shift Olympic impacts away from the most sensitive areas, serving on the Salt Lake Organizing Committee's Environmental Advisory Committee and Board of Trustees.
But despite the best efforts of the SOC, the International Olympics Committee and other well meaning groups, conservation groups warn that Utah's natural world will retain lasting scars from its Olympics experience.
"The principal environmental legacy of the 2002 Olympics will undoubtedly be Snowbasin resort, the only Olympic venue that is on federally owned land," said Dan Schroeder of the Sierra Club's Ogden, Utah chapter.
The Olympics provided the impetus which Snowbasin's owners needed to persuade lawmakers to trade 1,378 acres of environmentally sensitive federal lands in the Wasatch range in exchange for lands of comparable value elsewhere in northern Utah. Conservation groups charge that the exchange "overrode federal environmental laws" and brought new development to a pristine stretch of maple, aspen, and fir forests, interspersed with meadows and wetlands.
To make the deal possible, Endangered Species Act protections for the endangered Burke's mustard plant were suspended through the Utah Winter Olympics Facilitation Act.
While the federal government acquired more than 11,000 acres in the deal, Schroeder says none of those scattered parcels are "as important for ecology or recreation as the land that was given" to the Snowbasin resort.
"Several of the parcels are open to snowmobiling, which was prohibited at Snowbasin," Schroeder said. "Others are virtually inaccessible even to hikers, because they are blocked by private property."
In exchange for these parcels, Snowbasin got permanent possession of a previously public stretch of the Wasatch Range. Just 10 percent of that land is now being used for the Olympics - the rest is being developed into an elaborate, four season resort destination, served by a new $15 million highway built with taxpayer funds.
A host of condominiums, vacation homes, a golf course and other facilities are planned for the site.
Another area that is experiencing major impacts from the Olympics is the Soldier Hollow area of Utah's Wasatch Mountain State Park. During a visit to the Olympics site last week, Interior Secretary Gale Norton called Soldier Hollow - the cross-country skiing and biathlon venue - a "unique, high visibility Olympics showcase" for America's public lands.
"When several billion television viewers and readers across the globe focus on Utah, I hope the beautiful lands and cultures of the West surrounding Salt Lake City will help them learn something about the American spirit, as well as the Olympic spirit," said Norton. "Understanding our natural treasures and our special relationship with the land is essential to understanding Americans."
More than 100,000 Olympic spectators will be welcomed to the Games at the Western Experience - a special exhibit created at Soldier Hollow including corralled wild horses, a so called "mountain man camp," log cabins, covered wagons and Native Americans in traditional dress.
In creating the Western Experience and other Olympics venues at Soldier Hollow, Utah State Parks and Recreation pledged to prevent and mitigate damage to the site's wetlands and a natural spring. Those efforts have failed, conservation groups charge.
Vegetation planted by Parks and Recreation in two areas of Soldier Hollow died, was replanted, and died again, largely due to a lack of water, says Utah Environmental Partners (UEP). UEP is a coalition of individuals from the public and private sectors who review environmental issues in Utah, particularly those associated with the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
Still, Soldier Hollow is considered to be one of the most environmentally friendly of the Salt Lake Olympics venues - largely due to the fact that the area was not in a pristine state before it was developed for use in the Olympics.
"No one expected any of the Games' venues to be an improvement over the natural environment," says the UEP. "This has certainly been borne out at some of the other venues. However, environmentalists who have spent time at the venue have asserted that Soldier Hollow is the most environmentally friendly of the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games venues."
In other aspects, the Olympics' "green games" promise has fared even worse. At Snowbasin, a bus unloading area was built too close to a stream, causing erosion and sedimentation. Yet the buses that were to have used this lot have largely failed to materialize, because most athletes and other Olympics personnel are being transported by a fleet of sport utility vehicles (SUVs).
The Salt Lake Organizing Committee originally promised to provide bus transportation to all mountain Olympic venues. But the committee said it could not afford to rent 1,000 buses at $1,000 per day, at a total cost of $17 million for the 17 days of the Games.
Instead, the committee acquired 5,000 SUVs, with an average fuel efficiency of between 14 and 20 miles per gallon. Just 200 of these vehicles are equipped for use with alternative, less polluting fuels. To accommodate these vehicles, more than $35 million has been spent on new parking lots.
The vehicles will add to the region's existing air pollution problem, which led to health warnings in the week leading up to the opening ceremonies last Friday.
The SOC cites a host of other areas where the Salt Lake Games have fallen short of the Olympics; environmental ideals. For example, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee turned down an offer by the U.S. Department of Energy to showcase millions of dollars of demonstration solar panels during the Olympics.
Without renewable energy sources, for example, the Olympic Rings built on a hillside above Salt Lake City will use 50,000 kilowatt hours of electricity during the Games. Plans for those rings were publicly unveiled just two weeks before they were constructed, though the rings had been designed at least 18 months previously.
The problems are not expected to end when the Games end later this month. Repairing environmental damage caused by thousands of visitors, and removing dozens of temporary structures and parking lots, could take months or years.
Yet the Salt Lake Organizing Committee does not plan to retain any environmental compliance officers after July 2002 to monitor cleanup and mitigation activities, or to support any independent monitoring activities.
The SOC hopes that other communities will take note of the problems experienced in Salt Lake City, and avoid similar issues at future Olympics.
"When budgets are being tightened, environmental programs will appear as luxuries rather than as integral components of a successful event," warns the SOC. "Success of Olympics environmental programs will rely on the organizers' abilities to produce appropriate funding sources at the outset of the Games planning and protect them to the end of the Games."
Written by: Cat Lazarof, Snowbasin Land Exchange
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