Sustainable Slopes

To skiers, Aspen is more than a towering, white-barked tree—it’s a mecca. Anyone walking here without the awkward gait that comes from being strapped into skis looks out of place. Sure there are restaurants, bars, night clubs, artists and musicians in Aspen, Colorado, but all that comes after a day at the slopes.

ASC’s Sundeck Restaurant boasts energy efficiency and impressive mountain views. Credit: Aspen Skiing Company

The one thing central to the ski industry is snow, and just a few days or weeks of unseasonably warm weather can mean an unprofitable season. The U.S. Global Change Research Program says, “Projected losses of 10 to 20 percent of ski season days may mean a loss of $42 million to $84 million for the New Hampshire ski industry alone.” The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that global warming may already be affecting the snow pack of the Sierra Mountains in California.

Aspen Skiing Company (ASC), which operates four mountains, three hotels and 15 restaurants in Aspen, knows protecting the environment is protecting the ski industry. “Based on third-party research, in 100 years, Colorado is going to be like Santa Fe due to climate change, and there will be no skiing,” says Auden Schendler, director of environmental affairs at ASC. “So we have a vested interest.”

The 1998 arsons in Vail, Colorado, carried out by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), first put skiing on the environmental radar. Though sprawl and wildlife conservation issues prompted the ELF’s radical move, the Vail arsons drew attention to the ski industry as a whole. ASC became the first of a dozen such firms to establish an environmental department and to begin to take significant measures to reduce its environmental impact.

As the ski lift rises and the treeline gives way to dramatic drop-offs, hesitant amateurs and seasoned professionals vie for the slopes of ASC-run Ajax Mountain. At the top of this overgrown mound of snow, a quiet environmental project comes into view—the Sundeck Restaurant. One of the first buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, the restaurant boasts a deck made from recycled materials, an energy system that uses wind power for 30 percent of its needs and energy-efficient lighting, not to mention a mean bowl of veggie chili, a large fireplace, plenty of seating and an impressive view of the mountain.

Skiing Takes Energy

Energy efficiency is at the root of ASC’s environmental protection plan. Last year, computers, refrigerators and nearly everything requiring electricity began receiving an energy-efficient upgrade. Free shuttles transport guests to and from the mountains, reducing traffic, fuel usage and hassle. The Cirque lift at Snowmass is wind-powered, and the Sustainability Report says workers carried equipment up the mountain on foot to protect the tundra during the lift’s construction. In addition to retrofitting lights, ASC recycles fluorescent bulbs, which contain mercury, keeping about 750 bulbs a year out of landfills.

With 45 million gallons of water being used for ASC’s mountains each season, snowmaking is one of the ski industry’s heaviest environmental gluttons. To make a dent in that figure, ASC invested $10.5 million in a more efficient snowmaking system that saved 4.5 to 6.3 million gallons of water in the 1999 to 2000 season.

Architect Alexis Karolides of the Rocky Mountain Institute says that like any industry, the ski industry impacts the environment. “But [ASC] recognizes that the environment is critical to their business,” she says. “Yes, they’re taking water out of creeks to make snow, but they’re trying to do it as sustainably as possible. I work with a lot of companies doing the bare minimum, and I really think this company is quite dedicated to having the least impact on the environment.”

In 1999, more than 150 ski resorts joined ASC in signing the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) environmental charter. The agreement is non-binding, so all environmental improvements are voluntary, but small steps are being made. Vail Resorts installed an “earth tub” from Green Mountain Technologies that composts kitchen scraps into fertilizer. Wachusett Mountain Ski Area in Princeton, Massachusetts uses waste heat from snowmaking machines to heat their new Base Lodge, and they’ve been recognized by the NSAA for their “Science on the Slopes’ environmental education program.

Though sprawling development and diminishing water and wildlife resources continue to place ski resorts on many environmentalists’ blacklists, the charter’s signatures are a hopeful step toward more sustainable slopes.