Luke Cartin’s do-good eco-exuberance is palpable as he extols the virtues of Vail Resorts’ sustainability plan, from its purchase of renewable energy credits (RECs) to the hydro power studies it’s now conducting on its mountain streams. As the environmental manager of Vail Resorts’ five popular mountains, Cartin wields influence at an important time in snowsports history—a time when resorts across the country are breaking new trail on the path to sustainability.

“The green efforts being made in Colorado are amongst the most aggressive in the ski industry,” says Troy Hawks, communications manager for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), which issues a Sustainable Slopes report on resort sustainability initiatives each year.
The big guys aren’t the only Colorado ski resorts walking the walk. Even fledgling ski areas like Silverton Mountain are looking to lessen their impacts. “Everything we have here is recycled or reused and those items would have ended up in a landfill,” says Silverton owner Aaron Brill. According to Colorado Ski Country USA, the combined environmental initiatives of its 22 member resorts translate to more than 3,600 metric tons of carbon dioxide being offset per year.

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Despite its jet-set clientele of second-home-owning glitterati, The Aspen Skiing Company has managed to become a beacon of green-ness in a cluttered sea of sustainability claims. At the helm is Aspen Skiing Company’s executive director of sustainability, Auden Schendler, who has a knack for making solid eco-conscious decisions while also shaking things up at the industry level.

For example, Vail offsets 100 percent of its five resorts’ electricity use (making it the largest buyer of certified wind power in the travel and leisure industry)—an act, it says, that keeps 211 million pounds of CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere every year. That’s the equivalent of taking 18,000 cars off the road every year or planting 27,000 acres of trees. But Aspen has chosen to veer away from offsets at Schendler’s recent urging.

“We stopped buying RECs because we didn’t feel they were legit,” explains Schendler, who originally had urged his employers to dive into RECs in 2006. “We are focusing on developing renewable energy in the ground with concrete.”

Schendler points to the micro-hydroelectric system Aspen installed on Snowmass Mountain, the three wind turbines it’s considering and the 147-kilowatt solar array it funded in neighboring Carbondale, which is the largest of its kind in Western Colorado. Aspen Skiing Company has also developed the ski industry’s first climate policy by committing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from 2000 levels by 10 percent by 2012 and 25 percent by 2020.

Green or Greed?
While all of that sounds positive, the bottom line is that ski areas, by their nature, take a heavy toll on the planet and local ecosystems. There’s the impact to the local environment, the intense use of resources such as water for snowmaking, and skiers’ CO2-boosting travel to resorts. In fact, a 2007 study showed that 62 percent of visitors to Colorado resorts (approximately 7,748,545 people) were from out of the state or out of the country.

While many resort efforts are valiant, how can the public be sure they’re not greenwashing? Ski resorts’ toughest eco-barometer may well be Durango-based Colorado Wild, an environmental group that runs the Ski Area Citizen’s Coalition. Each fall, the nonprofit group issues the Ski Area Environmental Scorecard, which rates the environmental performance of ski resorts across the West and parts of Canada on a scale of zero to 100. The 2008 top performer? Aspen Mountain. The lowest scorer? Copper Mountain Ski Resort.

“The biggest problem with ski areas and what makes them not sustainable is that many look to expand with real estate and more ski terrain,” says Hunter Sykes, coordinator of the Scorecard and the co-director of Resorting to Madness, a documentary flick on the impacts of the modern ski resort industry. He argues that there has been little growth overall in skier visits in the last few years and that these expansions are simply an effort to lure skiers from other mountains. “Ski areas say to be successful they have to expand,” says Sykes, “but that’s a ridiculous argument in my view. There aren’t any more skiers out there to bring to your mountain.”

The big question is, for all their efforts, from energy reduction and recycling to carbon offsets and LEED-certified green building, can these behemoth travel-dependent businesses really be run sustainably?

“How do you define green and sustainable?” asks NSAA’s Hawks. “In the ski industry we feel good because we are leading these efforts and hopefully we’re setting an example for other businesses.”

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