Ski season is upon us!
It takes work for Timberline to maintain its status as the ski and snowboard resort with the longest-running snow season in North America. It also takes a lot of salt.
Rock salt melts down heavy warm-weather Mount Hood snow of the "Cascade Concrete" variety and allows it to re-freeze in a more compact and less sticky form that makes a far superior sllding surface. Racing coaches apply salt liberally to their courses and park crews spray it onto the in-runs of large jumps with blowers. Without that salt, racers would be constantly getting thrown forward in the ruts leading to high-speed crashes. And free-riders would have a hard time gaining enough speed to clear the knuckle or gap and land safely on the out-run of those large jumps they hit. Anyone who's landed on the knuckle before knows it is no fun.
Salt is a crucial component of warm weather snow preparation on Mount Hood. High Cascade Snowboarding Camp's website is only half-joking when it refers to its team of on-the-hill diggers as "the keepers of the salt and the sultans of the slush."
As for racing, anyone who paid attention to the Alpine events at sub-tropical Rosa Khutor knows that without salt, the 2014 Winter Olympics would have been an even slushier mess than they already were.
Furthermore, chances are that salt use will become even more prevalent as the snow-sports reluctantly adapts to a warming planet.
In the photo to the left, by Mount Hood ski racing photographer Mike Juliana, a race volunteer tosses salt onto the course at Timberline on a warm day.
Timberline uses rock salt, or halite, under a permit issued by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The environmental group Friends of Mount Hood takes exception to this practice, and recently contributed an opinion piece to The Oregonian arguing that salting on Mount Hood is bad for the environment.
Friends of Mount Hood is already suing the Forest Service to try to stop Timberline from operating chairlift-accessed mountain bike trails during low-snow months.
Timberline has posted an explanatory piece titled "The Use of Salt on the Palmer Snowfield" on the Summer Snow page of its resort website, concluding that "the practice of applying salt to Palmer Snowfield presents no threat to aquatic resources, aquatic biota, wildlife, or drinking water."
I will print the full text of the Friends of Mount Hood complaint, followed by Timberline's defense.
Here is what Dennis Chaney and Karl Anuta of Friends of Mount Hood wrote:
"If you want to enliven the conversation at your next dinner party – short of ending the party, as can happen these days – try bringing up road salting. Everyone will have an opinion. But, should you then mention that one million pounds of salt will be dumped on Mount Hood this summer, you will see a lot of blank expressions.
"The snow-belt states have studied and proven the negative impacts to plants, aquatic animals and water sources caused by salting. These states follow guidelines based on risk management studies.
"And, yet, the U.S. Forest Service permits Timberline Lodge to dump as much salt as the corporation deems appropriate to extend skiing through the summer, without any studies of the environmental effects.
"Salting started at Timberline in the 1950s. Timberline sells lift tickets, meals and mountain supplies, including the salt, to ski camps that train on the snowfield all summer. To be clear, the concern is not the presence of camps. The concern is super salt toxicity possibly contaminating the environment.
"Palmer Glacier and its snowfield is the source of the Salmon River, which flows into the Sandy, and, not surprisingly, there is currently excessive salt in the Salmon system. The Forest Service tracks the salt levels, but it has not studied the effects on flora or the Spring Chinook, Coho, Steelhead, resident trout and the aquatic food chain.
"In 1988, Congress declared the Salmon a National Wild and Scenic River. The Forest Service did a study on how to protect the river. The multi-tons of salt annually dumped for multi-decades at the river’s source were not even mentioned. Ironically, this system is a key part of the state’s recovery plan for salmon and steelhead. It is unknown if salting is affecting recovery efforts costing millions of tax dollars.
"The Forest Service is not the only agency that turned a blind eye. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality did nothing until a lawsuit was filed against Timberline in 1996. The lawsuit argued that salting required a Clean Water Act certification. Timberline requested one, which DEQ promptly issued, so the lawsuit became moot.
"The DEQ set thresholds on chloride and total dissolved solids and required “monitoring.” However, monitoring is just data collecting, which is done by a private contractor hired by Timberline. Again, like the Forest Service, DEQ has not done any investigating to learn the impacts on plants, animals and water.
"Over the past 50 years, there have been many requests for studies on the effects of salting. For example, a PSU study called for more research and noted that several years of monitoring showed “Conductivity values were determined to be two to three times the values from other snow and glacier fed streams … and sodium concentrations were more than 10 to more than 100 times higher. These levels remain below thresholds of concern suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but possibly above levels for which species have been adapted.”
"The elephant in the room is the meaningfulness of these thresholds, given 50 years of prior salting. Due to the lack of studies it is critical to apply what has been learned in the snow belt, such as, “There is a legacy effect of salt in the environment, which means that concentrations in surface and groundwater will increase, perhaps for decades, even if we stop using road salt today.”
"Just as problematic as the lack of investigation is the unwillingness of the Forest Service to take action when thresholds are exceeded. For example, the total dissolved solids were exceeded in eight years out of a 14-year period, including four years straight, and salting continued.
"Sometimes, it is educational to look beyond the borders of our state. The International Olympic Committee permits salting “only to prepare competition runs.” Also, salting glaciers has been restricted in Europe. Many European ski resorts have agreed to use mineral salts only for building World Cup ski race courses.
"Mount Hood and its glacier streams is a national treasure managed by the supervisor of the Mt. Hood National Forest on your behalf. Salting will continue until you speak up and tell the USFS, DEQ and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to investigate the effects of salt on our priceless mountain streams."
Here is Timberline's explanation:
The Use of Salt on the Palmer Snowfield
Here on Mount Hood, as is true at ski areas throughout the world, the practice of ensuring a fun and safe ski surface includes applying rock salt. The salt works by essentially melting the snow crystals at the very top of the ski surface, creating a slurry that quickly refreezes as a smoother, faster skiing surface. The snow almost instantly becomes less “grabby.” This provides more skiable surface conditions and increases safety, contributing to Timberlines reputation of being one of the world’s finest summer ski and snowboard programs, and an international summer destination.
As operators of Timberline, and stewards of this alpine environment, we recognize that the practice of salting raises environmental questions and concerns, and we want to address those concerns here.
Salt is applied to the Palmer Snowfield on nearly a daily basis from late May through approximately Labor Day. The practice of salting is a site-specific operational one. An effective monitoring plan, as well as an understanding of salt’s affect on the environment needs to carefully consider the area’s site-specific conditions including topography, weather, volume of snow, drainage, and levels of naturally occurring (background) sodium chloride in the streams and rivers below. It is important to keep in mind that rock salt (or halite) is a mineral which exists naturally. There are similar naturally occurring background levels of sodium within Mt. hood streams outside of the Palmer drainage system.
RLK and Company, operators of Timberline, has a pro-active science-based monitoring program for the salting. Golder and Associates, a geotechnical consulting firm based out of Redmond, Washington has been contracted since 1988 to oversee, analyze, and compile the data. The primary purpose of our comprehensive analysis is to account for the salt that we are introducing into the environment and study and evaluate any surface water impacts.
RLK and Company operates Timberline under the terms of a Special Use Permit from the United States Forest Service. The practice of applying salt to the hill is authorized under the terms of a 401 permit issued by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. We provide them with concise records of salt application. Surface water data is provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The monitoring program incorporates a continuous flow and conductivity study and utilizes water samples collected from 8 locations in several streams within the Palmer drainage.
The analysis confirms sodium chloride in the downstream waters. That is important in that it accounts for the salt, and indeed, monitoring stations show that summertime chloride levels increase during salting and return to normal background levels in the winter months. Chloride concentrations observed in all monitored streams, at all stations, regardless of elevation, are well below the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality drinking water standard of 250 mg/L and below the EPA water quality of 230 mg/L (chronic) and 860 mg/L (acute) for exposure to salt-sensitive species. It has been concluded that the practice of applying salt to Palmer Snowfield presents no threat to aquatic resources, aquatic biota, wildlife, or drinking water.
With the benefit of 25 years of scientific monitoring, Timberline is confident in the conclusion that the practice of salting, when done responsibly and in accordance with sight specificity, can be done in an environmentally sensitive way and on a sustainable basis.
Is salting the slopes bad for the Mount Hood environment?
Should the use of salt be limited or more tightly monitored?
Or is the system working fine as is?