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When Auden Schendler, environmental director for Aspen Ski Company, sermonized to a congregation of green-minded folk in Boulder last year, his message wasn’t really what the audience wanted to hear.

Switching light bulbs, building “green” and buying low-flow toilets will not save the planet, he said. It will in fact do very little in the big picture. Even at the expansive Aspen Ski Company, day-to-day environmental endeavors are simply a drop in a sea of melting ice.

This year, the company filed an amicus brief—also known as a “friend of the court brief”—to the US Supreme Court in support of the Environmental Protection Agency regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. They’ve testified before Congress in support of federal climate change policy. And Schendler has taken their message to major media outlets and has penned a well-received book, Getting Green Done.

“It sort of tells you where our power is—using Aspen as a soapbox,” he said.

They’ve also focused on the small levers: investing in countless conservation and efficiency efforts, renewable energy development, and recycling programs. They’ve even banned Kleenex, whose parent company, Kimberly-Clark, refused to stop using virgin paper fiber from the endangered North American Boreal forests.

In the end, Aspen and Schendler do all this with the hesitant hope of one day helping to save the planet from its gas-guzzling, plastic-loving, carbon-spewing residents—and saving their industry in the mean time.

“Our motivation is pretty obvious. We see climate change as a threat to the industry,” he said. “We also think there are a lot of good reasons to solve (climate change), even without it being a threat to the business. But really, the conventionally understood threat is that snow is going away.”

Tourist destinations worldwide now offer a menu of green options; you can refuse house-keeping during your stay at many hotels or find attractions with everything from solar panels on the roof to recycling bins in every corner. The benefits are two fold: They save cash by conserving water or energy and get a marketing boon when they label themselves green.

But for places like Aspen, Telluride and Arapahoe Basin, their livelihoods depend on low temperatures and lots of natural snow—meaning, their do-goodism must pay off. If scientist-documented trends in climate change persist, their industry will look very different in a matter of decades. According to regional climate change models, by the mid to late 21st century, the season will start later and end earlier, there will be increased dependence on manmade snow or, in worse-case scenarios, it will be too warm to make snow. The regional ski areas could feasibly melt away along with the nation’s $4.5 billion ski and snowboard industry.

“We have a vested interest in making sure it snows,” said Adriana Blake, administrative manager of Taos Ski Valley. Blake has already seen a shift in their season: It becomes colder later into fall and stays colder later into spring.

“It comes down to the fact that if it’s warm, we can’t make snow,” she said. “If it’s less than 20 degrees out, that’s optimal. If temperatures get too high, we are basically spending money and making rain. As it gets warmer, it’s harder on us.”

*

One cannot really talk about climate change without mentioning the skeptics. At least briefly.

Jerry Meehl knows a bit about skeptics, or “the naysayers,” as they are often called. The senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder has been a contributing author, lead author and coordinating lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment report. He has received death threats from those who believe his life’s work is hullabaloo and has watched as his peers have been brought down by what is known as Climate-gate.

“It’s the difference between politics and science,” he said. “People don’t believe in climate change because they think it will cause one of a few things: the government will start telling them they can’t do certain things, there will be a carbon tax or regulation, and they object on the principle that government should not interfere.
These are all political things. That has nothing to do with science.”

But the failed climate change policy, the threats and the divisiveness have not stopped researchers from continuing their work. Politics be damned, the science will carry on.

The vast number of science organizations and climate scientists agree that global warming is very, very real. According to the EPA’s Climate Change Indicators Report, global temperatures are climbing (2000–2009 was the warmest decade on record worldwide), arctic sea ice is shrinking (2009 numbers were 24 percent below the 1979 to 2000 historical average) and average sea levels worldwide have increased an inch a year, up from six-tenths of an inch per decade since 1870.

Meehl says the question is no longer, “Is climate changing?” It’s, “Why is climate changing?” Ask him that and he will give you a long explanation that includes but is not limited to the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide, equations, volcanoes, solar radiation and global models that have deconstructed climate patterns over decades, showing a link between greenhouse gas emissions and increased global temperatures.

And eventually the question becomes, “How will it impact me?”

When you look at warming predictions in the Rocky Mountain region—and all around the world—it’s not cut and dry. First of all, regional models are still being fine-tuned. It’s also difficult to predict carbon dioxide emissions over the next 10 to 100 years. And it’s difficult to predict just how the planet will warm over the next century. Then there’s variability in tracking climate shifts, which make it hard to determine exactly what the climate will look like years from now.

“Natural variability is imposed on these long-term trends,” he said. “You have things like El Niño and La Niña that impact snowfall—on top of the changes that we see with climate change. It’s not that every year will be warmer. Instead, we might have one bad snow year out of four. Then in 10 years, we get two bad snow years.”
Meehl is also on the National Advisory Panel for the Aspen Global Change Institute, which worked with the city of Aspen to develop The Canary Initiative.

The initiative is unique, because it’s a public-private partnership to study how global climate shifts could potentially impact one region of one state in one country of the world. Researchers analyzed and reported on climate, socioeconomics, ecology and mountain snow.

According to the study, over the last 25 years, Aspen warmed by about 3 degrees and snowfall decreased 16 percent. In the next two decades, precipitation could decrease somewhere between 1 percent and 18 percent, depending on the model; temperatures could warm by 3.6 degrees by 2030, according to the average model calculation. In worse-case scenarios, the ski industry in the area could come close to drying up by 2100.

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Ski areas are not victims of everyone else’s actions.

Paul Joyce, conservation associate for Colorado Wild and the Ski Area Scorecard, sums it up with this: “They’re out there keeping up with the Joneses.” That, apparently, includes continued development by ski resorts of commercial and residential real estate as well as anything that boosts their bottomline and status at the expense of the environment.

“You see it on I-70. Each resort wants to be the first one to open, so they make snow and they suck up all the creek water and wreak havoc on the ecosystem and the hydrological cycle and the wetlands. You mess with things. Not to mention the huge energy consumption,” he said.

The Ski Area Scorecard was developed because of criticism that the National Ski Area Association’s Sustainable Slopes program was ineffectual as a tool for consumers, Joyce says. The scorecard, which grades ski areas on habitat protection, protecting watersheds, addressing global climate change and environmental practices and policy, is a third-party evaluation based on facts.

“It’s an informational tool designed to help people make decisions,” he said. “You can look up your favorite ski areas and see what kind of impacts they are making. You can see who is doing well, and you can send them a notice that you have seen their score.”

Joyce admits they put an increased emphasis on protecting the forested high country and watershed. That’s likely why development-happy Breckenridge gets the scorecard’s lowest grade; actually, they received an A for environmental policies and an F for habitat protection.

Still, over the 11 years that the scorecard has been around, the people behind it have seen an increased focus on conservation and preservation from the industry as a whole.

“More often than not, it’s economical. A lot of ski areas are making these improvements because it can save them money and get them media attention,” Joyce said. “…As bad as greenwashing is, it’s an effort. It’s on their radar. That’s a good thing.”

Ski areas and resorts from Eldora to Telluride and back to Loveland have made eco-friendly improvements. Monarch is recycling plastics and relies on all-natural snowfall. A-Basin offers discount tickets to carpoolers and the sundeck on the lodge is constructed from recycled material. Vail Ski Area supports a mass transit system for employees and the community and is working on a solar array. Taos Ski Valley offsets 100 percent of their energy and recently purchased two fuel-efficient snow cats.

The list goes on.

Currently, Aspen Ski Company owns three of the top 10 ski areas on the scorecard, and Joyce says they continue to make the right decisions to be the environmental leader of the ski world.

*

On the other hand, ski areas will not be victims of themselves. They can—and will have to—adapt to whatever the future has in store for them. According to Nicholas Flores, the economics department head at CU, who studies environmental economics, ski areas will have to focus more on summer recreation, they will diversify their economies and their ski areas will have to change their infrastructure and season to deal with less snow.

“Adaptation is the name of the game,” he said.

Showing no hint of pity, Flores predicts that other American ski areas, including those on the East Coast, will dry up before Colorado’s. He says the economics of climate change could potentially make the Rockies an international destination for winter recreation…even more than it already is.

“Let’s think about what happens with demand,” he said. “Can we increase capacity if the season’s shortened but the number of people increase?”

The second piece of good news: It can change. Many predictions, studies and models are dependent on what changes we make now. Whether it’s “big lever” movements like a cap-and-trade system and national climate change policy, or little lever changes like recycling or carpooling, the tide can shift.

An organization called the Mountain Rider’s Alliance is now working to develop low-impact, values-based ski areas that utilize wind turbines, solar arrays and hydro power. Pro-snowboarder Jeremy Jones and his buddies have started Protect our Winters, which works as a hub for the winter sports community to reduce the impact of climate change on their slopes. Everywhere, there are people working to save the snow.

“Oh sure. There is always a potential to change,” Meehl said. “We can try to evolve from a less of carbon-based energy system. …But the longer we dither around, the harder it will be to fix.”

*

Scorecard
To check on the Ski Area Scorecard and learn about their ranking process, visit skiareacitizens.com. Here, the scorecard’s top 10 environmentally friendly ski areas:
1. Squaw Valley USA, California
2. Aspen Mountain Ski Resort, Colorado
3. Buttermilk Mountain Ski Resort, Colorado
4. Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, California
5. Sundance Resort, Utah
6. Alpine Meadows Ski Area, California
7. Park City Mountain Resort, Utah
8. Bogus Basin Mountain Resort, Idaho
9. Aspen Highlands Ski Resort, Colorado
10. Powderhorn Resort, Colorado

Sustainable Slopes
To see the ski areas that have signed the National Ski Area Association’s Sustainable Slopes Environmental Charter, visit nsaa.org.

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3 comments

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    This odd article is a stunning misread of Aspen Skiing Company’s work, made through selective quotation. All corporate sustainability work, for the most part, offers a host of business benefits to a company. Thank god for that. But solving climate is obviously critical to the existence of the ski industry, and only in that sense is it a a flagrant business play. We have to solve climate or we go out of business. To be clear, we don’t think individual actions–or changes to corporate operations–address the scale of the climate problem. That’s why we’ve focused on much bigger levers–like filing an Amicus Brief to the supreme court on the most important environmental lawsuit ever to go to the court (Mass. V EPA) or sending our CEO to washington twice during ski season to lobby for climate legislation. In what way do these thoughtful, costly, and effective actions suggest we don’t care, or that solving climate is a pure business play vs. an existential threat to our business? If there’s a case to be made that those two examples are good for the bottom line, I’d love to see them. And in the end, while it’s frustratingly difficult to make real, large scale impact on climate, we keep finding big levers, and pulling them. See http://www.gettinggreendone.com for details.

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    Your comments about Aspen appeared to be based on some kind of party line which is unrelated to the facts. While your comments may make a good story, they don’t make sense. No ski resort in the country has done more than Aspen to fight climate change. It also has been a leader in urging the business community that the fight is good for business.
    I suggest you review your opinions outside of the pressure of a deadline to really develop an honest story.

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