PHOTO: Courtesy of Vail
PHOTO: Courtesy of Vail

Vail Announces Plan for ‘Zero Net Footprint’ by 2030

A massive sustainability project has been put into motion across all of Vail Resorts

Vail Resorts announced July 25 they will "aggressively pursue" a company-wide sustainability commitment to zero net emissions by 2030, zero waste to landfill by 2030, and zero net operating impact to forests and habitats.

"Everything we do at Vail Resorts is driven by the spectacular natural surroundings where our employees, guests, and communities live, work, and play. The environment is our business, and we have a special obligation to protect it," Rob Katz, chairman and CEO of Vail Resorts, said in a press release. "As a growing global company so deeply connected to the outdoors, we are making a commitment to address our most pressing global environmental challenge and protect our local communities and natural resources."

The announcement is especially significant because it marks the first time Vail Resorts has made serious moves toward addressing climate change. The publicly traded company has long been known for its aggressive pursuit of expanding its resort portfolio as well as its strict corporate ethos. Placing an ambitious mandate, and becoming a ski industry leader, in environmental stewardship, is a shift for a company that previously hasn’t made this responsibility a top priority.

In recent years, "Vail Resorts PAC" has sent thousands of dollars to the campaigns of stalwart climate change deniers. Katz personally donated $10,000 to the PAC in 2015 and 2016.

Last July, the Park Record reported that Vail Resorts Management Company spent money to re-elect Utah Governor Gary Herbert—who claims the science of climate change "is not necessarily conclusive" and blocked former President Obama's plan to clean up Utah's coal-fired power plants.

However, after President Trump announced his recent decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, Vail Resorts, like many corporate leaders, released a statement supporting action on climate: “Climate change is a global challenge that requires global cooperation, and it is disheartening to see the United States pull away from working with the other 194 countries that were part of the Agreement. Vail Resorts will redouble our efforts to find significant ways to minimize our carbon footprint through reducing our energy use to help address one of the most serious challenges facing our worldwide community.”

Vail Resorts, which purchased Whistler-Blackcomb last year, said they are motivated by the environmental commitments made by the British Columbia resort toward reducing their operating footprint, but that the company aims to go beyond setting goals for partial emissions reductions. Instead, Vail Resorts will pursue a more ambitious plan that promises a zero net operating footprint.

Having tallied 11.6 million visitors across all of its ski areas in the 2016/17 winter, Vail Resorts recognizes that it holds significant influence as one of the biggest faces in the industry.

"We acknowledge that this is a global environmental issue, and it is our role as leaders in the industry to take a strong position on this. It's our responsibility."

"It's our size and scale that allows us to have such a positive impact," said Rob Whittier, director of environmental sustainability for Vail Resorts. "We acknowledge that this is a global environmental issue, and it is our role as leaders in the industry to take a strong position on this. It's our responsibility."

Vail Resorts, which saw 11.6 million visitors across all resorts in the 2016/17 season, recognizes that as one of the biggest faces in the industry, they hold a lot of influence, and responsibility. PHOTO: Courtesy of Vail

Luke Cartin, the environmental sustainability manager for Park City Municipal and a former 15-year employee working for Vail's sustainability team, called the goal groundbreaking.

"This is a monumental decision in both the goals and timeline they set. With a 'zero' goal there's nowhere to hide," Cartin said, referencing the company's improved transparency on measuring sustainability practices.

To reduce emissions, the company will limit electricity and natural gas use by 15 percent by investing $25 million in energy-saving projects, from low-energy snowmaking equipment to green building design and construction.

Vail Resorts also plans to purchase a renewable energy equivalent to their total electricity use and to work alongside local utilities and governments to bring more renewables to the grids from which Vail operates their resorts.

“You could look at this as Vail making a not-too-subtle statement to Trump that climate change is real and we must act."

An additional goal for 2030 is to divert 100 percent of the waste from its operations to more sustainable paths, creating zero waste to landfills through improved recycling and composting programs and improved education for visitors and staff. The company is currently at a 40 percent waste diversion rate across all 15 of their resorts and plans to reach 50 percent by 2020.

Vail's plan also includes planting an acre of trees for every acre displaced by the company's operations and a continued expansion of Vail's partnerships with local and national organizations focused on protecting the environment.

"This is to be applauded," said Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. "By far the most important part of it is that Vail appears ready to wield political power around climate by joining the BICEP [Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy] coalition. You could look at this as Vail making a not-too-subtle statement to Trump that climate change is real and we must act."

Read more: Can Auden Schendler Save Skiing?

Schendler sees the move as an important step to persuade others to take action in the ski industry, which collectively has been slow to tackle the issue of climate change.

"I hope it inspires other people in the industry to set ambitious goals," he said. "Setting goals is exciting, getting there is the hard work."