Change Resorts Believe In

Sunshine daydream: aspen’s solar array will help, but resorts need to do far more to save winter. Courtesy of Aspen Skiing CO.

It doesn’t matter what your politics tell you to believe, climate change is affecting ski resorts. But what can they do about it?

Skiing and snowboarding seem like clean and innocent ways to spend time—open air, fresh snow and physical activity, but just like any outdoor activity, resort riding impacts the planet. It is inherently difficult to make snowsports an environmentally sound pursuit due to the travel, water to make snow, energy-intensive equipment, the constant threat of development and the loss of pristine land to create runs.

But over the years, the industry’s environmental awareness has grown, resulting in a huge movement to rein in impacts. Forward-thinking leaders at certain resorts, conservationists and athletes are blazing the way for needed changes. Ski resorts in the U.S. and Colorado have spent big money and made huge strides, greening their operations by reducing pollution, eliminating waste and designing products to use less energy.

“Ski areas do have an impact on natural resources, no doubt about it, but ski  areas are committed to being good stewards of the environment in which we operate, being good citizens of our communities and to providing winter recreation to the public in the long term,” says Melanie Mills, President and CEO, Colorado Ski Country USA (CSCUSA).

While all of these efforts are helping the cause, some argue that the snowsports industry needs to not only do more, but to shift its focus. Even amidst huge efforts to “green” the business, some argue that current efforts by resorts (and society as a whole for that matter) are misguided, not nearly brazen enough to cool the planet or insure the survival of the ski and snowboard industry.

sustaining snow

“Last year was basically a climate change season,” says Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co., referring to the dismal snowfall of 2011-2012. Fifty percent of the country’s resorts opened late and then closed early due to sweltering spring temperatures. To make matters worse, many had to depend on manufactured snow to survive the truncated season since national average snowfall at ski areas was down 41 percent. Colorado’s weak winter—one of the third worst on record for snowfall—resulted in a 7 percent decrease in skier visits and a snowpack half normal.

Rather than seeing this as a negative, Schendler, known for his innovative activism and attitude, sees an opening. “We can no longer ask the question: What can the ski industry do to be sustainable?” he says. “Instead we need to ask: If we really cared about solving climate change, what would we do? The climate situation is fascinating and the ski industry is the perfect metaphor for it. A year like this gives us an opportunity because it forces us to talk about the effects of climate change on a larger scale.”

Theo Spencer, senior advocate in climate and clean air programs at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) agrees: “The public can easily get the connection between a warmer climate, less snow and less skiing,” he says. “As things heat up, there is going to be less snow and people understand that on a personal level.”

Schendler is adamant about the fact that ski resorts need to prioritize solving climate change if they are going to survive. But, he also recognizes that if we, as a society, don’t change our ways, we will have bigger problems than a failing ski industry and the science agrees.

In 2011, the International Energy Agency (IEA) (“a conservative and staid body” according to climate expert Joe Romm) reported that CO2 emissions in the U.S. reached a record high. According to the IEA, we are on perfect track to warm the planet 11 F (6 degrees C) by 2100. This fact is even more alarming when you consider that a rise of greater than 3.6 F (2 degrees C) would result in catastrophic events like methane release, mega storms, water shortage and intense sea-level rise.

So, what does such a heady topic have to do with the ski industry? Well, just about everything given that ski resorts depend on, well, snow. Scientific studies show that while there will be greater fluctuations and more intense precipitation events (creating years with record snowfall here and there like 2010-2011), the overall trend for the future will be one of less snow and warming temps.

For this reason, Schendler (who recognizes that some people view ‘sustainability’  as a nebulous and empty term used only to greenwash projects), argues that sustainability is the perfect word to describe the industry and what it should be striving to attain. Many people think that having a sustainable business means zeroing impact, but this point is universally misunderstood. “Even this wouldn’t be sustainable because it wouldn’t stop warming,” says Schendler. “Sustainability means being able to remain in business forever and ski resorts can’t do this unless they solve climate change.”

Beyond Solar Panels

The looming crisis has actually brought environmental groups and the snowsports industry together. “Ski resorts are an obvious partner because they rely exclusively on weather and the weather is changing,” says Spencer. “They understand that to sustain their business they need to do everything they can to ensure they get snow.” To take such action, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) partnered with the NRDC to create the Sustainable Slopes program, an effort to “improve our collective sustainability efforts,” says Geraldine Link, the Director of Public Policy for NSAA.

Due to such partnerships and input from sustainability experts, many resorts have changed their ways over the past 10 years. They have attempted to reduce impacts and to address greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in their operations. The NSAA adopted an official climate change policy in 2002 and they have been implementing it ever since by raising awareness among resort guests, lobbying elected officials and taking action to reduce its own carbon footprint. “We are genuinely committed to sustainability and we have already made a difference in the national dialogue on climate change,” says Link.

Nevertheless, the industry has been hampered in its ability to exert substantive influence because of politics. In addition, its decision to avoid discussions of climate change in letters and policy statements and to focus on projects and initiatives like sustainable buildings, energy efficiencies, recycling efforts and solar panels has garnered criticism from some who say that this problem is too big.

“These smaller projects are good business because you save money and decrease your impact, but things like building LEED structures and buying carbon offsets are all pointless,” says Schendler. “And, I say that even though we [Aspen] do more of that than anyone. They’re pointless because they won’t stop climate change and we can and have to do more than that.”

However, Scott Fitzwilliams, Supervisor on the White River National Forest, which acts as the “landlord” for 11 Colorado ski areas, sees the benefit in smaller projects implemented by ski resorts. “The Forest Service and the ski industry can instill a basic stewardship ethic because we reach so many people,” he says. “So, while these projects may not address the big picture of changing climate and carbon emissions, they are still important from a societal perspective especially because they are right there in front of the visitor.”

Mills of CSCUSA agrees. “Lao-tzu said ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ The reality is that the polarized politics of our day make incremental steps toward a goal, taken by many, perhaps the only way forward.”

Aspen's Independence Pass
The Future? Aspen’s Independence Pass in 2011 and 2012. Photo cred: Jeremy Swamson

Wielding the Big Levers

Schendler consistently challenges the 650-billion dollar snowsports industry to “use its power in big leverage moves” that will create change and put the squeeze on politicians and other corporations. Aspen has done this in a number of instances: they have filed a brief with the Supreme Court, dropped out of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because it aggressively lobbies against climate legislation and have lobbied in DC with pro athletes like Chris Davenport, Gretchen Bleiler and Jeremy Jones, the founder of Protect Our Winters (POW).

“Small changes will not solve climate change because what we do doesn’t matter. What everyone does is what matters,” says Schendler. “So, what will solve climate change? Big scale policy fixes that will change the system so we can solve this as a society.”

One of those policy fixes is a carbon tax that would provide economic incentives for cutting emissions while keeping citizen’s wallets intact, thanks to a provision that would dividend the carbon fee back to the people.

“Ski resorts need to find a way to offset their energy use, but they also need to see what their biggest ‘lever’ is,” says Chris Steinkamp, Executive Director of POW. “For example, how can they mobilize their customers? How can they leverage their partners and suppliers to become more sustainable?  Can they, as major employers and tax generators, use that power to influence climate policy at the state or federal level?” he says.

Aspen Skiing Co.  and groups like NRDC and POW are working to find and fight for a suite of broader solutions like a carbon tax (fee and dividend), increased government spending on renewables and efficiencies, government efficiency standards for cars and appliances and a steady and predictable tax rebate system on clean power.

“It’s possible for the ski industry to be sustainable, but they need to take a more public stance,” says NRDC’s Spencer. “They need to focus on what they can do to change the outcome at a higher level.”

In the end, this is a problem much larger than any individual, ski slope or business.  The health of the ski industry and the planet hinges on our ability to come together and find ingenious solutions that work in the modern world. “People who work in the ski business are by nature optimistic and adaptable,” says Mills. “We hope to contribute in ways that are meaningful, but ultimately those of us having the conversation today about future impacts and what we might do about them won’t be the judges of whether we were successful.” •

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