Dependent on nature for their very existence, ski areas naturally have an embedded interest in their local environment as well as a cooler planet that delivers ample snowpack—which is why many have taken a green tack. And while they do engender carbon emissions by encouraging skiers to travel, they also bring people to pristine outdoor environments, where they can experience a Mother Nature worth preserving. “The ski industry can and should do more things to be more sustainable, but there is some role it plays in bringing people outside to a beautiful place and creating an environmental connection,” says Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
In the end, the issue of sustainability is much, much bigger than any one industry.
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“Whether a ski resort is sustainable is a moot point,” says Schendler. “Should we get rid of skiing? I hope a sustainable society still has room for fun and joy. We need to pursue a model for a sustainable society so when you ski or spend $5,000 in a hotel or do any other frivolous things, they all have a minimal carbon impact.”
Schendler is the first to point out that skiing cannot truly be a sustainable endeavor unless transportation is fixed. “If you have carbon-free transportation, okay. That’s all good.” he says.
Schendler and Vail’s Cartin see eye to eye on the fact that sustainability is a much, much bigger issue than its place in the ski industry. “For a ski resort to be truly sustainable the entire world also has to be. Total and complete sustainability? I believe it’s a path to follow and not an end point. You have to put it in perspective. What in this world is actually sustainable?” asks Cartin.
To wit, by their very existence even the most green-minded human beings cause carbon emissions and use natural resources. Cartin recalls a popular T-shirt worn at his “geeky” upstate New York college that read, “Save the world. Kill yourself.” Next, he adds: “I always get asked, ‘Will you refund my lifetime pass if I’m not be able to ski in Colorado in 2050? But if you can’t ski in Colorado, that’s going to be the least of our problems. We’re in the headwaters of drinking water for one out of five Americans.”
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Reaping the Profits
Ski resorts’ front-row seat on the fallout of climate change has caused many to launch internal green efforts, but it has also motivated a number to initiate educational programs targeted at the millions of skiers who visit their slopes each year. For most, global warming is still the main issue, but at Aspen, education is taking center stage.
“What’s your biggest lever to drive change on climate?” asks Schendler. “It’s not the recycling or solar panels, it’s the 57 million skiers all educated on climate change and action. It’s not about screwing in light bulbs; it’s about calling your senator.”
As such, Aspen Skiing Company has launched www.SaveSnow.org, an educational initiative on climate change that is backed up by a marketing campaign. The website provides simple information on climate change, touts the company’s own green efforts, and encourages readers to make simple lifestyle changes as well as contact their elected officials to request change.
“We are also using the whole ski industry to drive policy change in Washington and at the state level,” says Schendler, who wrote an amicas curiae brief for the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 on behalf of Aspen Skiing Company arguing for the EPA to recognize carbon dioxide as a pollutant. It worked. The brief was filed for Massachusetts v. EPA, a case in which the court ruled that the EPA should regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
In 2007, the NSAA also made the ski industry’s voice heard when it testified to the senate that climate change was a threat to its members’ businesses. “We are trying to take our work and influence broad change,” says Schendler, who authored the recently released book, Getting Green Done: Hard Truths From the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.
Compared to most other industries, the ski industry in Colorado and beyond has been exemplary in its efforts to become more sustainable. “Overall, yes, we are moving in the right direction, but it’s real important to realize that success doesn’t necessarily mean expansion,” says Colorado Wild’s Sykes.
Does profitability ultimately kill the sustainability buzz for any company? “Sure, we do it partly because it’s good for business,” says Schendler. “We often get ‘You do it because you’re greedy.’ But, if we make tons of money and do way better than our dirty competitors, is that a bad thing? There is this moral edge to it—you can’t be in the environmental movement and make money.”
But if companies can be both green and profitable, an easier path to sustainability will open up and climate change could be mitigated more quickly. “It doesn’t matter what the motivation is to be environmentally sustainable,” says Colorado Environmental Coalition’s Jones. “If companies can make money, more power to them. There is no crime in being profitable as long as it’s not greenwashing.”
Erinn Morgan is a Durango, CO-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Outside, and Skiing. She is also the author of the recently released book Picture Yourself Going Green: Step-by-Step Instruction for Living a Budget-Conscious, Earth-Friendly Lifestyle in Eight Weeks or Less.