Report Cards: Why They Work

Free-Range Thinking | January 2001

When six environmental groups banded together to form the Ski Area Citizen’s Coalition nobody took much notice. When they issued their first report card rating ski resorts, however, the media jumped on the story.

I love to ski and I care about the environment, but I never gave much thought to how one affected the other until last month. On December 3rd, I noticed an article in The New York Times with the headline, “Environment Groups’ Ratings Rile Ski Industry.” The story led me to a website where I discovered that Mammoth Mountain – one of my favorite California ski resorts – had earned a grade of C for its not-so-salutary impacts on the local ecosystem. More importantly, it reminded me just how effective reports cards can be as a communications tool for public interest groups.

Five western environmental groups are behind this particular effort. Colorado Wild, Utah’s Save Our Canyons, Washington State’s Crystal Conservation Coalition, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and California’s Friends of the Inyo had each been actively monitoring the impacts of ski resorts in their respective areas. When the National Ski Areas Association – the trade group for ski resorts – issued its environmental charter last year, the release had a galvanizing effect on the five groups. “We agreed that the charter was nothing but a greenwash,” said Gavin Noyes, Save Our Canyons’ director, “so we wanted to put a meaningful document together that would address a whole variety of environmental issues.” The five groups added Washington, DC-based Environmental Media Services to help with public outreach and formally established the Ski Area Citizen’s Coalition (SACC).

The idea of issuing a report card came from Jonathan Staufer, a Vail businessman who serves on Colorado Wild’s board of directors. According to Jeff Berman, executive director of Colorado Wild, Staufer had grown increasingly distraught at the development and environmental destruction around Vail. Despite a long-term trend in which the number of skiers nationwide was flat, Staufer and Berman were continuing to see proposals for expansion of existing resorts. From Berman’s perspective, the environmental charter issued by the resorts was the last straw. Once the resources of the 6 groups were combined under the SACC umbrella, work on the report card began.

“We spent 6 months brainstorming the environmental impacts of ski resorts,” Berman told me. Ultimately, the coalition agreed on 11 criteria including:

  • avoiding expansion of developed skiing acreage into undisturbed forest
  • avoiding water degradation from ski area management activities
  • environmental policy positions and public disclosure
  • wildlife habitat and forest protection
  • recycling, water conservation, energy conservation, pollution reduction

Each criterion was assigned a point value (e.g., preserving wildlife habit and protecting forests earned 15 points), and numerical totals were translated into letter grades for the final report card. “If anything, we gave the ski industry credit for doing small things,” Berman said. “They can get 2 points for using non-disposable items in their food service. Meanwhile, they could drive a plant or animal to extinction and only lose 5 points.”

The SACC rated 51 resorts in 10 states and posted the results on its website ( on November 29th. Nine resorts – including Sundance, Aspen Highlands, and Buttermilk Mountain – received an A rating; ten resorts flunked (including Copper Mountain, Vail, and Telluride). But I’d like to award the coalition an A+ for creating awareness for this issue. Along with The New York Times, stories on the report card appeared in USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Associated Press, Mother Jones, The Denver Post, and many other publications. And like me, many readers went straight to the coalition’s website, hitting it 140,000 times in its first 8 days.

Tom Lalley, Program Director for Environmental Media Services, wasn’t surprised by the positive press reaction. “Jeff [Berman] had been talking to reporters for a long time, so the pump was primed. And rankings like this make it easy for reporters to do a story. You can fit it into a minute and a half on television.” Lalley acknowledges that report cards may not work for every issue, but where appropriate they can be a powerful tool. “They show us how to get complex concepts across to a public who has limited time to devote to these issues.”

Many of the resorts have reacted negatively to the report card, Berman reports, and a spokeswoman for the ski areas trade group called it “an ill-warranted publicity stunt.” Nevertheless, the message appears to be getting through. “Management at Mammoth Mountain wanted to know how they could get their C grade up to a B,” said Berman, “so I think in the long run this has tremendous potential.”

Summary: Why Report Cards Work

  1. They force you, the grader, to identify clear criteria that translate complex issues into measurable numbers.
  2. Their release provides the media with a news peg, and report cards are inherently an easy story for reporters to cover quickly and accurately.
  3. They provide the public with information they need in a form they can easily digest and act on.
  4. When you are grading businesses or organizations, report cards provide a set of standards that the recipients can (albeit reluctantly) measure their performance against.

 free-range follow-up

Who Did This? (And how did it get into your computer?)

The first time I saw the “Official Florida Presidential Ballot,” somebody had hung it up in the kitchen we share at work. Then I received one via e-mail. And then another and another until I was screaming, “Okay: it’s funny once.” How this political cartoon circulated so quickly around the globe, however, is a remarkable story. Shortly after the election – when articles about the screwy Florida ballots first circulated – a 26-year old engineer (and aspiring cartoonist) from Elmira, New York, named Mike Collins created the cartoon and e-mailed it to 30 friends. And that was all it took for this particular “idea virus” to spread like the flu. Within two days, Collins was hearing from people in Germany, Australia, Russia and Cuba who had seen his satirical ballot. Of course, stories like the 2000 election don’t roll around every day, but if you’re looking to create buzz for one of your issues, Collins’ ballot is a reminder of the awesome power of the Internet to spread information, especially when that message is wrapped in humor.