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Ski areas catch wind of global warming

By Laura Bly (USA Today) - November 16, 2007

During a recent campaign speech in Portsmouth, N.H., presidential candidate Barack Obama warned his audience that “global warming is not a someday problem, it is now. In a state like New Hampshire, the ski industry is facing shorter seasons and losing jobs.”

That’s a message many North American ski areas — and their customers — are taking to heart. Working to change an image of profligate energy spenders, mountain resorts from New England to the Pacific Northwest are going green to help prevent their own climate-caused meltdowns.

When the Colorado-based Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition started ranking Western ski areas with environmental scorecards in 2000, “green initiatives were few and far between,” says research director Ben Doon.

Now, resorts are investing in everything from sustainable seafood practices and locally supplied food to biodiesel-powered snowcats and more energy-efficient snowmaking equipment. They are preaching the green gospel with global warming ad campaigns, discounts for guests who arrive in hybrid cars and matching donations to local conservation projects.

One of the industry’s biggest — and most controversial — efforts is the use of renewable energy credits, or RECs. These are payments to producers of wind and solar power to help them stay competitive when selling their more expensive renewable energy to utilities. They allow companies to say they’ve reduced their net contribution to global warming even if their own carbon emissions increase.

According to the National Ski Areas Association, 61 of 326 members are purchasing the credits; 28 members, including high-profile Vail resorts in Colorado and California and Jackson Hole in Wyoming, say they offset 100% of their greenhouse-gas emissions. Only one resort, though, is producing wind energy on site: Massachusetts’ Jiminy Peak, whose just-completed $3.9 million wind turbine will generate about a third of its energy needs.

In a recent Business Week story that criticized the most commonly used credits as “highly dubious,” Aspen Skiing Company’s environmental director, Auden Schendler, says he made a mistake last year when he urged the resort to claim it had offset 100% of its energy.

“We should have said, ‘We buy wind energy certificates equal to our electricity usage,’ and left it at that,” says Schendler, considered the ski industry’s green guru. “We’re comfortable making less aggressive claims now.”

“Not all RECs are created equal, and in fact, there are some good ones,” Schendler says.

What he is most proud of is his and other resorts’ increasing roles as off-the-mountain advocates for governmental change, including Aspen’s filing of a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court supporting states and organizations that successfully sued the Environmental Protection Agency to require it to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

“We’re a carbon-based, hugely damaging society,” he says. “You want to pick on ski resorts? We’re guilty. But (global warming) is a problem on a scale larger than the civil rights movement. We can’t be moral arbiters (with) a magic wand that says, ‘You can kayak but not ski,’ or ‘You can take a bus, but you can’t drive.’

“Yeah, the lodges and the hot tubs can reduce their emissions to a point, but unless we change the whole enchilada, we’re all going down.”

WANT TO SKI GREEN?

With input from the National Ski Areas Association (keepwintercool.org), the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition’s environmental scorecard (skiareacitizens.com) and the Ski Club of Great Britain’s green resort guide (skiclub.co.uk/skiclub/resorts/greenresorts), here’s a sampling of environmentally conscious ski resorts in North America:

Alpine Meadows, Calif.: Eco-projects at this Lake Tahoe resort include use of biodiesel fuel, summer native plant revegetation projects and extensive recycling. It is one of 20 resorts that sell carbon-offset SkiGreen Tags to skiers in a partnership with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

Aspen, Colo.: Aspen Skiing Company, which runs Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass, is the industry’s green pioneer. Among its newest initiatives: investment in a solar-energy farm in nearby Carbondale and an expanded global-warming awareness campaign and website (savesnow.com) that includes sending energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs to 40,000 customers.

Jackson Hole, Wyo.: This resort is the second of only two in the USA to be independently certified by international standards as a “green” company (Aspen was the first). Skiers who arrive there with at least three people in their vehicles get free parking. Its new on-mountain restaurant, Couloir, was built with recycled, sustainable products.

Killington, Vt.: Snowmaking is the biggest energy hog at most Northeastern resorts, and Killington’s increasing use of low-energy snow guns has cut diesel usage by more than 30% and electricity by 25% since 2004.

Vail, Colo.: Last year, the USA’s largest ski operator purchased enough wind-energy credits to offset energy use at all five of its resorts (Colorado’s Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone and California’s Heavenly). This year, it’s switching to organic dairy products and natural, hormone-free meats at its 40 on-mountain eateries. A proposed $1 billion, 9.5-acre project dubbed Ever Vail (occupancy could start as early as 2011) will incorporate green building techniques.

Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia: Host for alpine skiing events in the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, it has used conservation to reduce energy use by 60% over the past decade; it’s switching from bottled water to tap filters and has cut landfill waste by more than 50% since 2000.