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How four ski resorts are working to slow their demise

The “Melted Gondola” art installation sits at the top of Aspen Mountain. Made by Chris Erickson, it seeks to offer a message about climate change. (Aspen Snowmass)
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The data is telling: Climate change is threatening the ski industry. The 2022 Beijing Winter Games are the first Olympics to use nearly 100 percent artificial snow, and domestic ski resorts from Maine to California are reporting shorter ski seasons and lower snow levels. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the April snowpack in Western states declined at 86 percent of the sites measured between 1955 and 2020.

Paradoxically, ski resorts have been large contributors to the environmental issues that threaten them now, with snow-making machines that inhale water resources, chairlifts that guzzle energy and expansive ski runs that tear down trees and displace wildlife. Then there’s the problem of the skiers themselves: Most of the carbon footprint in skiing comes from lodging and the cars and planes used to get to the resorts.

As domestic ski resorts take stock of their grim future, more and more are beginning to make an effort to offset their environmental effects. We talked to leaders at four very different resorts to find out about some of the steps they are instituting to protect both the environment and their sport.

Aspen Skiing Company

The officers at Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado believe in thinking beyond the boundaries of Aspen Snowmass, four resorts that together attract about 1.5 million visitors a year. “You can’t really make change from within the system,” says Auden Schendler, a climate activist, author of “Getting Green Done” and senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company (ASC). “Our obligation at Aspen — or any other entity with power — is to wield that power to fix the system.” As an example, the skiing company got involved in early 2021 when the Biden administration halted new oil-and-gas leases on public lands, sparking lawsuits from the state of Wyoming and a fossil fuel industry organization called Western Energy Alliance. ASC and its legal team joined a range of partners to support the president’s position.

Daniel Scott, a professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo who specializes in climate change, agrees that policy is the biggest step resorts can make toward change. “The systemic change needed for deep decarbonization of the U.S. and global economy needs policy changes at all levels of government, but particularly national governments. [Aspen’s] strategy of advocacy attempts to accelerate climate action where it is needed most.”

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But it’s not just politics. After Aspen became the first in the industry to build a solar array in 2004, its leaders realized the system couldn’t generate enough power for all four of Aspen’s ski mountains. So, in 2012, they invested more than $5.3 million into building a three-megawatt power plant at the Elk Creek Mine in Somerset, a small town about two hours away. After partnering with local energy companies, they were able to use this facility to convert leaking methane from the coal plant there into electricity for the resort. According to a 2021 report from ASC, the mine produces about enough baseload power annually to power all four of Aspen Snowmass’s ski hills for a year, including hotels and restaurants. Plus it prevents methane from being released into the environment, where it would become a major contributor to climate change. “The key to change is solving multiple problems with one solution,” Schendler says.

Taos Ski Valley

The leadership of Taos Ski Valley, a 1,300-acre resort in New Mexico, wants to do more than just reduce the resort’s carbon footprint. “We take everything into consideration before making changes: The environment, sustainability and social responsibility are all taken into account,” says David Norden, its chief executive. In 2017, Taos became the world’s first ski resort to be designated as a B Corp., a business whose certification obligates it to meet a high social and environmental standard.

Part of this responsibility is to enact change beyond the boundaries of the ski slopes, and Taos does this as a charter signatory of the Nature Conservancy’s Rio Grande Water Fund (RGWF), created after the 2011 Las Conchas wildfire that burned tens of thousands of forested acres in Northern New Mexico. Post-fire thunderstorms led to ash and debris flowing into the Rio Grande, eventually contaminating the water supplies in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The goal of the RGWF is to increase the health of 600,000 acres of forest upstream to secure clean water for future generations downstream. For its part, Taos is selectively thinning the forest, on its private land and on parcels it leases from the U.S. Forest Service, as part of the RGWF strategy.

Taos is focused on day-to-day operations, too. The resort has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030, and to do so, it has partnered with a local electric cooperative that plans to be 100 percent solar by the end of this year. But Scott notes that coal is still the main source of power to the New Mexico grid, so the benefit of Taos’s swap to solar is mixed. The resort also invested in a BioCoTech composter that diverts food waste from landfills, along with the associated methane gas that comes from rotting food.

Berkshire East Mountain Resort

According to marketing manager Nathan Marr, Berkshire East in Massachusetts is the only ski resort in the world to generate 100 percent of its electricity via on-site renewable energy sources. Marr said the mountain commissioned a 277-foot-tall wind turbine in January 2011 that produced 900 kilowatt-hours (kWhrs) of energy. Shortly thereafter, the resort added a 10-acre field filled with 1,800 solar panels that produced another 500 kWhrs. The 1,400 combined kWhrs are enough to power the entire resort — but only because, as Marr notes, it’s a small one, at about 200 acres. “We only have three main chairlifts, a couple magic carpets, and several lodges and buildings that all require energy,” Marr says. “We don’t have a huge, huge power demand like larger resorts.”

Small or not, it matters. “This is as sustainable as it gets in terms of on-site actions to reduce emissions, and the turbine also feeds clean power into the grid year-round,” Scott says.

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Berkshire East often produces more energy than the resort requires, especially in the summer, when snow-making machinery isn’t running. When this happens, the excess energy goes out to the grid to be used by others in the area. In addition to its renewable energy sources, the resort also uses wood cut from the property to heat the buildings, further reducing its reliance on oil or propane.

Snow-making is still a major resource hog within the ski industry, and Berkshire East is no different. However, the resort added a top-of-the-mountain snow-making pond, in addition to the original one at the base. “Pumping water from the base to the top of the mountain to make snow, against gravity, took a lot of energy,” Marr says. “When we added the pond to the top of the mountain, we’re going with gravity and using much smaller pumps, so that takes a lot less energy.”

Bluebird Backcountry

If you want to view sustainable skiing from a different angle, consider Bluebird Backcountry, which saw about 6,200 visitors in its 2020-2021 season. A ski resort designed for backcountry skiing education, this Colorado resort doesn’t require much in the way of resources, because, as it puts it, it is “human-powered.” All skiers are required to carry traditional backcountry safety gear — avalanche beacon, shovel and probe — to traverse the natural, ungroomed terrain that is routinely mitigated for avalanche danger by the resort’s highly skilled patrol team.

There are no chairlifts; all skiers earn their turns by skiing uphill. There is no lodging or housing or restaurants; all structures at the base are constructed with removable tents that the resort breaks down in April. There is no snow-making; skiers have to wait for Mother Nature to dump powder. And as for power for the tents? “When we’re in-season, we use solar panels from Elevated Independent Energy in Boulder,” says Melissa Baker, the partnerships lead at Bluebird.

And when the ski season ends in April, there is nothing left of Bluebird — except for acres of grazing land turned back over to the cattle.

Rochfort is a writer based in Colorado. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram: @HeatherRochfort.


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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