Mt. Baldy, California. Photo: David Reddick
Mt. Baldy, California. Photo: David Reddick

What To Look For When You Buy Your Season Pass

A third-party certification group is helping skiers make better decisions on where to spend their season pass dollars

I don't think twice about buying a season pass. It's a line item in my budget and as important to my happiness as a roof over my head, and unless my friends decide to mass migrate to another mountain, I'm probably going to stick with the resort I’ve skied at my entire life. But lately, in a year as politically active as this one, I've been wondering whether, as skiers, we should be thinking more about where we spend our dollars, and how we can support the businesses that pay it forward to our communities and environment—and that includes where we buy our season passes and lift tickets.

This year has been a strong example of consumer activism, a textbook tool of social change that is as old as the American Revolution and the boycott on British goods. Last spring, Patagonia spearheaded a movement in the name of public lands to take the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow out of Utah, landing a $45 million hit on the state's economy. When Uber continued to provide service to JFK airport last winter on the night President Trump's travel ban was first announced, the #DeleteUber movement caused the business to lose 200,000 clients.

Skier dollars matter, too, especially right now when the ski industry is becoming more corporate (which means business decisions are more removed from local communities) and the stakes of climate change are becoming more critical. We don't have to boycott ski resorts. But we should be more informed about the resorts where we ski, and whether their practices deserve our business.

But this can be a challenge. Most every ski resort preaches about their list of "green" and "sustainable" accomplishments and goals on their website and through social media. Whether that list is legitimate or a marketing charade—we have to be able to distinguish the difference.

Enter STOKE, a third-party certification for sustainability that's designed to help consumers (read: you and me) clearly see which ski resorts are committed to supporting their local communities, culture, and environment. Since 2012, STOKE has been digging into the nitty gritty of ski resort business to inspect the parts that count and reporting back to consumers. Their checklist is 300 points long. The first ski area to pass the test and receive STOKE Certification was Mount Ashland in Oregon this year, and the group is also working to certify Diamond Peak in Tahoe, Mount Abram in Maine, China Peak in Central California, and Hurricane Ridge in Washington.

I called up STOKE co-founder Carl Kish to help me decide where I should spend my season pass dollars.

Julie: What makes a ski resort sustainable?
Carl: It's being able to provide year-round mountain experiences for generations to come. How are we going to be able to enjoy the mountains in those communities for generations to come?

I seriously wonder if I will be able to take my grandkids to the same mountains, expansive landscapes, and enjoy the local culture in those communities in the future.

Alright. So, what are the things you look for to determine whether a ski resort is on the right track?
We have four categories and that's management, social/economic—so how they support the local community—then we look at cultural heritage—how they embrace what's locally, culturally relevant, and taking pride in the community and what makes them special—and then the whole gamut of environmental impact initiatives.

We look at how they train their staff and educate them on, how are we reaching these goals for energy efficiency, water conservation, waste diversion, environmental restoration projects in the summer once the snow melts? How are they tracking those initiatives?

In the community development section, how are they responding to the needs of the local communities that they serve? How is the ski area being influential in that community?

Within the cultural section, supporting local arts, theater, heritage groups—that could be Native American indigenous communities, and if that's part of the mountain and their operations, then how are they respectfully doing that?

With the environmental, it's some of the more typical stuff that you might think of, recycling and efficient light bulbs and low-flow water fixtures. It can get pretty granular with snowmaking equipment and technology, snowcats and how they operate on the mountain, alternative fuels.

And then of course, renewable energy and measuring your carbon footprint, and creating goals for reducing your carbon footprint.

It goes on and on.

How does environmental and climate change activism play into a ski resort's responsibility?

At the basic level, we want to see that ski resorts are at least supporting someone like Protect Our Winters, for example, or a local NGO or nonprofit that's trying to advocate for climate policy change.

A best practice would be something like what Aspen is doing, being really engaged locally or also nationally.

Is there enough awareness among skiers to support ski resorts—and spend their money at these places—that stand for these values?

It is for a small part of the population, but mostly, people don't really think about it in their choices [for skiing], yet. That is our goal to change that and become that authentic voice that resonates with them about what sustainability is at a ski resort and why they should care and how to choose between different ski areas about who is actually making an impact.

In general skiers and snowboarders, just like in surfing, naturally care more about the environment, moreso than maybe other target demographics. But still, the thought process is not really taking place when they're buying a lift ticket or buying a season pass, as much as it is changing when you're buying a t-shirt from Patagonia versus Nike.

What needs to happen to increase awareness and the purchasing power of skiers?
Until more of the industry starts to adapt those practices, that's when we're going to see more people demand it.

We're still small; we're only in our fourth year and it takes a while for these certification programs to gain traction. Beyond just us though, I think it's going to take more ski resorts like Vail to push this message in a responsible way.

I care to read the press releases and think about what each bullet point means and so on, but the average person is just going to want to know; Are my lift ticket dollars supporting a ski resort that cares about preserving this culture for the next generation, supporting these beautiful landscapes and local community? We're trying to become that easy choice: Yes, I want my lift ticket dollars to support a ski area like this.