PHOTO: Justin Cash
PHOTO: Justin Cash

Can Vail Really Make A Difference on Climate Change?

What it actually means for a ski resort to call themselves sustainable

One of the most overused words in the ski business is "sustainable." People throw it out any time they talk about anything having to do with the color green. "Sustainable" could mean new LED lightbulbs. It could be an investment into snowmaking equipment that uses less energy. The actual definition of the word, meanwhile, is to maintain a status quo forever—so in the context of skiing, that would mean to ensure skiers can harvest deep pow turns for many generations to come, and beyond. And that ski resorts will continue to stay in business despite more frequently erratic winters.

Will a fleet of new LED lightbulbs or energy-efficient snowguns prevent the impending global and powder-turn-destroying disaster that is climate change? The answer is no.

It was through this lens that I read about Vail's announcement last month to neutralize all of their carbon emissions across its 13 resorts in less than 15 years. (You can read about Vail's Epic Promise here). It’s a commitment that says, by 2030, Vail Ski Resorts will operate with:

• Zero net emissions
• Zero waste going to the landfill
• Zero impact on forests and natural habitat

The Epic Promise is groundbreaking, ambitious, and wide in its scope. It deserves applause and recognition. But will it create real change on a save-the-world and save-skiing level? And how, exactly, are they going to accomplish it all?

In an effort to find a few answers and boil down how legitimate Vail's Epic Promise to sustainability and the environment is, I called up three people to get to the root of what actually matters in Vail's grandiose statement, and what the word "sustainable" actually means in this day and age of skiing, ski resorts, and ski resort development.

THE PANEL:

Auden Schendler. Aspen Skiing Company's VP of Sustainability, board chair of Protect Our Winters, and climate change activist. In an effort to be transparent toward skeptics like myself, Aspen has published "sustainability reports" since 1999 so that you and I can see exactly what they've done to take greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere—and also what they still need to work on.

Jamie Schectman. Co-founder of Mountain Riders Alliance, a grassroots organization that's tasked themselves with "creating sustainable mountain playgrounds." Mountain Rider’s Alliance works with small ski areas, including Mount Abram in Maine, which has been a leader in environmental iniatives, like building a solar array in their parking lot and using snowguns that do not require air compressors and, therefore, burn a lot less energy.

Carl Kish. Co-founder of STOKE certified, a fairly new program that's starting to work with ski resorts as an independent third party to certify that they are, indeed, sustainable, based on a checklist that has 150 criteria points.

The word "sustainable" has been used so often, for so many different things, that it's hard to judge what actually counts and what matters. What does sustainability actually mean for skiers and the ski industry?

Schendler: As a starting point, to be sustainable has got to mean solving climate change. You can work on trash, but if you don't solve climate that doesn't matter. You can work on public lands and open space, but if you don't solve climate, you lose public lands and open space, because they change, they dry up, they catch fire.

Kish: It's being able to provide year-round mountain experiences for generations to come.

So how can ski resorts solve climate change, and ensure we keep skiing forever?

Schectman: I'll make it simple: I think every ski area should be making their own energy on-site. They all have the opportunity between wind, solar, micro hydro, and/or geothermal. They should all be energy centers.

Schendler: If there was a hierarchy of action, the most important thing to do would be to wield political power around climate, and the second thing to do would be to green your operations, but I honestly don't see that as environmentalism anymore. I just see it as business.

Kish: If a ski area is claiming to be sustainable, then they have to recognize that it's their responsibility to handle their impacts locally. For there to be bigger change against climate, we're going to have to get larger policy adoption nationally. Yes, that is definitely a path a ski area should take. Because we are in a divided country, it is admittedly tougher for a ski resort in a place, say, like Wyoming than compared to California. I don't want to give them a hall pass for that. They should still be involved on whatever level they can.

“As a starting point, to be sustainable has got to mean solving climate change. You can work on trash, but if you don't solve climate that doesn't matter. You can work on public lands and open space, but if you don't solve climate, you lose public lands and open space, because they change, they dry up, they catch fire.”

On to Vail's Epic Promise, what stood out the most to you? Is it a legitimate effort to stop climate change?

Schendler: Vail has done a really, really good job, in my estimation, of implementing energy efficiency across the board. I think they really do that well. And they deserve credit for that. And then, in their new announcement, they doubled down on that.

They also said, 'Hey, we're going to be more politically active.' They joined the BICEP coalition (Ceres Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy). That is significant. They didn't really emphasize that. But as I understand it, it was Rob Katz who brokered that. And it's essentially a commitment to engage on policy issues around climate change and the environment. That is by far the most important thing, and they deserve major credit for that.

Schectman: They're an industry leader and they're going to push the needle collectively, because everyone follows in Vail's footsteps.

Kish: The Epic Promise touched on a few different environmental things, and had tangible goals and percentages, which is good to see. And it's based on somewhat of a benchmark that they set with sustainability consultants. So it's good to see that they worked with outside experts to create those benchmark goals.

For every acre that they displace of forest, through resort expansion or trail building or whatever, they're going to plant an acre of forest. That's good. For someone like me, I'm going to question—where is that forest going to be replanted? Who is going to be managing that forest?

We're going to want to see more details about how those initiatives are going to be handled. That's where I'm hoping they maintain that transparency.

What's the biggest difference between Vail's scope and the abilities of other ski areas to take action, especially smaller ski areas?

Schectman: With the smaller community ski areas, the reason why they're not doing it, they're holding on for dear life. They're going out of business. They're going to need a million dollars or more in capital for a new lift—which are all reaching the end of their lives because ski areas were built in the '60s and '70s. For community ski areas, it's about available cash.

Kish: Vail has huge potential for influence in the world from what the average skier or snowboarder thinks about sustainability, and why they should care.

Schendler: [Vail] taking this position is more important than Aspen taking it. Because we're a smaller, privately held company. And they're publicly traded and they're big. You know, they're a business, like a hardcore business in a way that gives credibility. So that is really important.

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