SAN FRANCISCO — It will cost nearly $2 billion to stage the Salt Lake City Olympics--almost $800,000 per athlete--with U.S. taxpayers picking up about a quarter of the tab. Partly due to increased security, the Utah Games, which start on Feb. 8 and continue for 17 days, will be the most expensive Winter Olympics ever. "These are not wasted funds," says International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge. Such an investment, he says, leaves a "great legacy" to Olympic cities.
But in Salt Lake City, the Games will leave another legacy as well: profound ecological consequences. Following the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the IOC adopted an ambitious set of guidelines emphasizing environmental protection, sustainable development, and a "proactive" and "dynamic approach" to achieve green goals. The environment was touted as one of three pillars of the Olympics, along with sports and culture, and cities bidding for the Games had to trot out their green credentials.
But such considerations have since been largely abandoned in Salt Lake City, and in the end, the region will likely be left with significant environmental damage from the Games. "The only thing green about these Games," says Alexis Kelner, co-founder of the Utah environmental group Save Our Canyons, "is the color of the currency being thrown around."
That money is going everywhere except to environmental protection. In the beginning, some $6 million was budgeted by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) to address environmental concerns. In February 1999, that sum was reduced to $1.5 million, or just one-tenth of 1% of the 2002 Olympic budget.
With meager resources at her disposal, Diane Conrad Gleason, director of environmental programs for the SLOC, has focused on educational projects, including a children's video with television's "Bill Nye, the Science Guy." Seminars on green themes have encouraged Salt Lake hotel and restaurant managers to implement water and energy conservation techniques. Gleason also has promoted an international tree-planting campaign. And she's continued to mouth the requisite incantations about hosting "the greenest Games ever."
But educational initiatives and public relations cannot mitigate the negative impact of major construction projects like the ski jumps at Utah Winter Sports Park, which have left a large, ugly gash on the mountainside. Even Mitt Romney, president and CEO of the SLOC, concedes that was a mistake. "It happened before I came on board," he said. Nor could it prevent billionaire oilman Earl Holding, at the time a member of the SLOC, from pulling off what many activists see as the biggest environmental scandal of the Games.
Using his considerable political connections, Holding arranged a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service to acquire 1,377 acres at the base of his Snowbasin ski resort, with carte blanche approval from Congress to develop the land. Congress also pitched in a $15-million subsidy for an access road to Holding's resort.
Pristine mountain wilderness soon morphed into condos, restaurants and ski runs. Parking lots encroached on riverbed areas, degrading trout habitat and discharging waste runoff into the watershed. As approved by Congress, these developments were exempt from the usual public review required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The waiver was justified, according to Republican Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, to facilitate the staging of the Winter Olympics. But critics contend that the public was hoodwinked. "No land swap or other similar venture was necessary to stage the Games," says Howard Peterson, a member of the U.S. Olympic Organizing Committee's site-selection team that evaluated Snowbasin as a venue for ski-race competitions.
Trying to make the best of a bad situation, the Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC), a volunteer group established by the SLOC, worked with environmental groups and government officials to choose a road pathway to Snowbasin that would have the least impact on wetlands, streams, and hawk and owl habitats. The EAC also lobbied to protect vulnerable canyons in the Wasatch Mountains.
But the EAC wielded no real authority, and several members, including Ivan Weber, head of Utah's Sierra Club chapter, quit the group after concluding that ecological concerns were a low priority for the Olympics committee. "When environmentalists would bring up an issue," Weber explained, "SLOC would say, 'It's too early to do anything,' and then at some point later would say, 'It would have been nice, but it's too late now."