What Summit County, Colo. ski resorts are doing to move toward sustainability
FRISCO — Ski resorts have a strange mix of contradictory truths: avid skiers and snowboarders want the snow to continue so they can continue their lifestyle and hobbies. Climate change is threatening the business of ski resorts. Yet, some quintessential aspects of snow sports require contributions to climate change like travel to the resorts, electricity use on the mountain and disruption of natural areas.
The four major Summit County ski resorts — Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Breckenridge Ski Resort, Copper Mountain Resort and Keystone Resort — have all shared unique projects with the community, such as when A-Basin announced its plan for carbon neutrality or when Vail Resorts announced its zero emissions pledge, but looking at what these resorts are doing from a more holistic view gives a bigger picture on how much closer the ski areas are getting to achieving sustainable mountains compared to five years ago.
Arapahoe Basin Ski Area has a bit of an upper hand when it comes to low net energy usage as it doesn’t have any lodging facilities on the mountain, which can be major energy drains. Yet, the ski area still does use snowmaking, electricity and other forms of carbon-emitting processes. Sha Miklas, senior manager of guest services and sustainability at A-Basin, began working to increase the ski area’s sustainability in 2007.
Miklas explained that while her efforts were impactful, they were a bit haphazard and she got to a point where she had done everything she could without any consulting, expertise, or clear direction. When the ski area won the National Ski Areas Association’s Sustainable Slopes Grant in 2017, they partnered with the consulting company Brendle Group to come up with a strategic plan.
“We were kind of stuck at a point of where do we go from here, and then we won the grant,” said Miklas. “We had a couple full day sessions where we hashed out all of this stuff and the plan was born.”
A-Basin came up with the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2025. This goal comes with six subgoals, which are to centralize purchasing, achieve 100% renewable energy, increase carpool and public transport participation, achieve 75% waste diversion, have no net increase in water use, and lead in ecosystem stewardship and wildlife management.
The ski area has made chips at these goals by implementing programs and policies like “going bagless,” or not using plastic garbage bags in many of the mountain’s facilities, composting and recycling hard-to-recycle items like energy bar wrappers, chip bags and plastic wrapping. Mike Nathan, sustainability manager for Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, explained that the mountain is getting closer to its goal with a current waste diversion rate of 50%.
Several ski areas are using Renewable Connect, an Xcel Energy program that allows businesses to use a blend of wind and solar energy to power it with more renewable energy, including A-Basin. The ski area was awarded 20% of renewable energy for overall usage of energy by the program and Nathan attested that snowmaking is almost 100% solar powered.
Arapahoe Basin put its newfound sustainability initiatives and skills to the test when building The Beavers and The Steep Gullies by making the process as sustainable as possible and the least disruptive to the environment as possible.
“The Beavers expansion was a big piece of it, it was done in a very sustainable way,” Miklas said. “It was roadless and everything that came in was either on foot or by helicopter.”
At Copper Mountain Resort, the approach is to work from the big picture down to the details. This comes from one of POWDR’s founders, John Cumming.
“It’s really his vision that his kids and his grandchildren should have the same opportunities in participating in adventure that he did,” said Taylor Prather, Copper Mountain spokeswoman. “So at a macro level, that’s where it all starts from and that’s a POWDR-wide initiative.”
Jeff Grasser, part of Copper Mountain’s Play Forever sustainability team, explained that there are three main areas of focus within Play Forever: energy efficiency, waste reduction and mountain ecosystem.
In terms of energy efficiency, Copper Mountain has made upgrades to lighting and buildings and has deployed high efficiency snowmaking equipment, which offer 20% to 70% savings compared to traditional equipment. The mountain has installed solar panels on various buildings on the mountain and has also entered into the Xcel Energy Renewable Connect program.
“Right now Copper Mountain is approximately 12% solar powered,” said Grasser, “and … our corporate teams will be expanding that in the future. That’s kind of our next step forward is more solar powered acquisition.”
To increase waste reduction, Copper Mountain has added more bear-proof recycling containers on the hill. One of the most unique programs Copper Mountain puts on is the native seed collection program. The ski resort partnered with the Friends of Dillon Ranger District to get community members and employees together to collect native seeds from the nearby ecosystem. These seeds are used for restoration of the disturbance that happens on Copper Mountain through ski and other use.
Another major piece of ski resort emissions is the individual cars that visitors drive to get to the mountain. Prather explained that Copper Mountain is engaging in conversations with the I-70 Coalition and Colorado Department of Transportation to address this issue.
“There’s more to come on that for sure in terms of ride-sharing programs, different transportation methods that guests can take up,” said Prather. “It’s going to take a partnership effort and a community effort to kind of get people to think about coming up to the resorts in different ways.”
In 2017, Vail Resorts announced their commitment to achieving a zero net operating footprint by 2030. This goal applies to all Vail Resorts locations, but the locations require different measures to be taken in order to reach this goal. As this applies to Breckenridge and Keystone, both ski resorts are also involved in Renewable Connect, according to Loryn Roberson, Keystone Resort’s communications manager.
More specifically, Roberson shared that at Breckenridge, over 50 snowmaking guns were replaced this summer with their more energy efficient counterparts. All on-mountain restaurants and several other buildings were equipped with LED lighting and a food scrap collection program was implemented to increase waste diversion efforts. The program collects food scraps from on-mountain dining locations and converts them into compost, which is used in revegetation projects on the mountain. Breckenridge also incentivize employees to bike, walk, carpool or take the bus to work by awarding monthly prizes.
Keystone also has replaced over 50 snowmaking guns with more energy efficient versions and has changed up their snowmaking plans to better utilize resources. Keystone decreased the use time for the night skiing lights, as they were previously on during some days and nights when there was no night skiing. The resort also has a food scrap program that has been in place for 10 years, and completed LED light conversions in its conference center and other buildings.
While there is still much more that can be accomplished, sustainability at ski resorts is both the responsibility of the resorts and visitors to the resorts. Resort frequenters are encouraged to reach out to local ski areas to make suggestions as to what else can be done to increase the sustainability of resorts.
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