By Kristen Pope Explorebigsky.com Contributor

Skiing and snowboarding can be costly endeavors, but while mountain athletes expect to pony up financially to play in the powder, these sports can also exact a steep environmental toll. Between impacts of ski resort construction and maintenance, transportation to the slopes, and required gear, being an “eco-friendly” skier or snowboarder can be challenging.

While environmentally concerned riders could spend months poring through reams of documents comparing resorts, some opt to let the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition do the work for them.

SACC is a cooperative effort among environmental organizations that releases an annual “Environmental Scorecard” rating ski resorts’ green efforts. The Sierra Nevada Alliance is leading the 2012-2013 effort and expects the latest report to be released by President’s Day.

To produce the scorecard, SACC compiles and evaluates information it receives from the Forest Service and other agencies, often through Freedom of Information Act inquiries, as well as voluntary reports from resorts. The grading system evaluates western U.S. resorts in four categories: Habitat Protection, Protecting Watersheds, Addressing Global Climate Change, and Environmental Practices and Policies.

“The Ski Area Environmental Scorecard strives to differentiate between ski areas that are engaging in environmentally sound practices on the ground versus those that merely claim to do so,” Anna Olsen of the Sierra Nevada Alliance said.

Last year, Moonlight Basin ranked first in Montana with a 79.9 percent score (an “A”). The resort uses renewable energy credits to offset all lift use, provides free public transit, has a comprehensive recycling program and extensive conservation easements and wildlife corridors.

“Wildlife roam freely both in the conservation easements and in our remaining 8,000 acres as we’ve purposely preserved the corridors that connect low wintering grounds to high elevation summer habitat,” Moonlight Basin Spokesperson Stephanie Panico said. “We’ve protected far more land than we plan to ever develop, and we’ve carefully restricted our development to our current footprint.”

The National Ski Areas Association, a trade organization for resort owners and operators, also promotes ski area sustainability with the Sustainable Slopes program, awarding the Golden Eagle Award for Overall Environmental Excellence. Wyoming’s Grand Targhee Resort earned the Golden Eagle in 2009 and 2011 and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort received the award in 1995 and 2011.

“[The Sustainable Slopes program] provides an overarching principle so that all resorts can get on the same page,” National Ski Areas Association Director of Public Policy Geraldine Link said. “The result is improved environmental performance across the board.”

Powder lovers venturing away from resorts can also do their part to make environmentally conscious choices (and stay out of jail) by complying with winter wildlife closures in the Tetons and the Jackson area. Critical wildlife habitat is closed to humans and dogs during winter, the most stressful time of year for wildlife.

When people and dogs enter these areas, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, deer and other wildlife expend their limited energy avoiding them instead of finding food. Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance’s “Don’t Poach the Powder” campaign educates backcountry users about closures and provides maps that are available at: JHAlliance.org/DontPoach. Violations can result in a $5,000 fine or six months in jail.

Wherever skiers and boarders choose to play, they have to find a way to get there. Many resorts have efficient – and often free – public transportation options, and carpool incentives abound (including free resort parking). Drivers can increase fuel efficiency by avoiding unnecessary idling, removing roof-mounted carriers, and replacing studded snow tires when the snow melts.

By making environmentally conscious choices, skiers and boarders not only pat themselves on the back for being green but also help protect the mountain lifestyle. The growing threat of climate change is a serious concern for the snow sports community and every eco-friendly choice, no matter how small, makes a difference.