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Going Beyond ‘Green,’ Activism New Standard in Ski Industry

By BRITTANY PETERSON Associated Press

ASPEN, Colorado (AP) — Snow falls thick as skiers shed their gear and duck into the Sundeck Restaurant,
one of the first certified energy efficient buildings in the U.S. – this one at 11,200 feet (3,413
meters) above sea level atop Aspen Mountain in Colorado. Skiers in brightly colored helmets jockey for
a spot at the bar, their bodies warmed by thick, insulated walls and highly efficient condensing
boilers.

Overhead, WeatherNation plays on the television, looping footage of last year’s mega storms and
flashing a headline: “2022 billion dollar disasters.”

Aspen Ski Company’s vice-president of sustainability, who sits nearby eating a slice of pizza, says
it’s not enough for resorts to just change their on-site operations to become “green.”

“If you’re a ski resort and you care about climate change or you profess to care about climate change,
it absolutely has to go beyond reducing your carbon footprint,” said Auden Schendler. “If your CEO
hasn’t spoken out on climate publicly or in an op-ed, you’re not a green company.”

As global warming threatens to put much of the ski industry out of business over the next several decades, resorts are beginning to embrace a role as climate activists in the halls of government. The industry contributes just a tiny fraction of overall greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate
change, but arguably has outsized influence on popular culture and in the business world. While many
resorts are focused on reducing their own emissions, others are going much further, leveraging their
influence to shift public opinion and advocate for climate legislation.

Arapahoe Basin is a ski area leading such efforts in the United States. Positioned high up on the
craggy, wind-whipped continental divide in central Colorado, the mountain is relatively well-positioned
to endure a warmer, shorter winter season. High altitude, which keeps temperatures cooler and lengthens
the time snow stays on the ground, is its golden ticket. But it isn’t immune to extreme weather: it has
experienced close calls with wildfires and subsequent mudslides, which washed out a parking lot
adjacent to its slopes in 2021.

About a decade ago, the ski area transitioned from spending thousands of dollars annually to cancel out
some carbon emissions by paying for carbon credits to instead funding a staff position focused on
reducing on-site emissions.

“If we are gonna ask our guests to be better, we’re gonna ask our guests to talk to their leadership,
we’re gonna go talk to our leadership directly, we definitely feel like we need to be doing it too,”
said Sustainability Manager Mike Nathan.

One way they’re working to nudge a transition to renewable energies is with newly installed electric
vehicle chargers. After a day on the slopes, Denver resident Kurt Zanca returned to his Tesla, which
had been charging for free at one of the five dual-port stations situated in the front row of the
mountain’s parking lot.

Zanca said he thinks charging infrastructure at ski areas can help encourage hesitant shoppers to
purchase an EV. “If you can drive up here, charge, go back, no problem, it makes it a lot easier,”
Zanca said.

In the northern French Alps, luxury chalet operator Alikats also sees incentives for customers as a
catalyst for change. They offer discounts to guests who travel by train, opt out of eating meat or
don’t use a hot tub during their stay.

Al Judge, who owns and operates the business with his wife Kat, considers himself a realist. He’s not
trying to save snowfall—massive reductions in greenhouse gases emissions worldwide are needed to slow
global warming—but rather set a standard for how businesses should operate in a way that respects
natural resources and protects biodiversity.

“The more that becomes a cultural imperative, the quicker change will happen, and I think business has
a very important role to play in that process,” Judge said.

Arapahoe Basin, affectionately known by locals as “A-bay,” is working toward net-zero emissions by
2025, partially by relying on credits through the Colorado Carbon Fund to offset some natural gas and
diesel they’ll still be burning at that time. They also aim to divert 75% of their waste by then —
they’re currently at 50% through various recycling and composting programs. Nathan says these efforts
give them clout when trying to flex their influence off the mountain.

They’ve pressured their utility, Xcel Energy, to expedite the transition to renewable power. Earlier
this year, Nathan and other industry leaders met with the governor’s staff to encourage the rapid
transition to manufacturing EV heavy machinery statewide. And, after watching a federal bill that
eventually became the Inflation Reduction Act stall, Nathan and Chief Operating Officer Alan Henceroth
co-authored an op-ed and sent letters to Colorado’s congressional delegation.

“Kicking the can for another legislative session was going to have direct and negative impacts on
businesses like us,” Nathan said.

Similarly active in policy work, Judge runs an organization that’s studying the lack of public transit
in the region and expects to soon lobby French officials for a solution. A train route through the
northern Alps would provide a more direct public transit option that could reduce the number of flights
coming in, Judge said.

Customer travel remains a primary source of pollution for ski areas, with air travel, in particular
private jets, a major culprit. For example, over 80 percent of flights in and out of Aspen-Pitkin
County Airport are private jets, airport officials said. Ideally, airports could tax private jets and
invest that money in renewable energy projects, said Schendler. But the Federal Aviation Administration
remains a roadblock. Federal law prohibits airports from spending tax revenue offsite. This restricts
any renewable projects to airport grounds, and any revenue made from them must be used exclusively at
the facility.

While Aspen has yet to win over the FAA, it found a way to sway its local utility, Holy Cross, which
supplies power to more than a dozen towns in addition to Vail Mountain Resort along the Interstate-70
corridor. About 15 years ago, Schendler began phoning environmentally minded locals and encouraged them
to run for board positions for the utility, which produced about 10% renewable electricity at the time.
Today, the board is stacked with pro-renewable members, largely the fruit of lobbying by Aspen and
other activists. The utility is split about 50/50 between renewables and fossil fuels, and is committed
to 100% renewables by 2030.

Another way to speed the transition to renewables is through power purchase agreements. This is when a
business or utility commits to buying a set amount of energy from yet-to-be-built projects,
guaranteeing some of the funding to be built.

Vail Resorts, which owns 37 ski areas in three countries, has done this with a wind farm in Nebraska,
and is one of five partners for a new solar array in Salt Lake City. Power purchase agreements have
helped Vail reach 100% renewable electricity for all its resort and ski areas in North America, and 96%
internationally.

Snowshoe Mountain is a ski resort in West Virginia still largely powered by fossil fuels. As the
climate bill stalled last summer in Congress, CEO Patti Duncan felt the need to get involved. She
doesn’t consider herself an activist but wanted to speak up when she watched one of her state’s
senators, Joe Manchin, defend the state’s coal industry and hold up the legislation. Duncan wondered,
what about the thriving outdoor industry, which is negatively impacted by the burning of fossil fuels?

With encouragement by owner Alterra Mountain Company and climate activist group Protect Our Winters,
she wrote a letter to Manchin. Days later, he came out in support of the bill. Duncan said she doesn’t
know whether her letter played a role in the senator’s decision but is glad she spoke up.

“It’s my responsibility to do something about it for our resort and our community and our state,”
Duncan said.

On the other side of the country, Aspen had installed a kiosk at its Limelight Hotel lobby at the base

of Snowmass Mountain. The kiosk allowed guests to send a pre-paid card to the senator, encouraging him
to support the bill.

The climate bill passed and was signed into law. As a result, record federal funding is now available
for households and businesses to decarbonize buildings and transportation. But Mario Molina, executive
director of Protect Our Winters, says the work is just getting started.

The next steps are “anything and everything that resorts can engage in to leverage not only their
political power but also their power as large consumers to help implement and realize the promise of
the Inflation Reduction Act,” Molina said. He cautioned of local opposition to renewable energy
projects, and said resorts could make a big impact advocating for the permitting necessary for those
projects, in addition to taking advantage of every available credit on their own.

Many skiers applaud such efforts and want their favorite ski areas to have a role in fighting climate
change — with an important caveat.

“As long as they’re being sincere and not just sort of doing it for show and not actually making much
of a change,” said Archie Bolgar, a British student on vacation at Aspen in January with friends from
Boston’s Bentley University.

While there are many environmental issues corporations could embrace, Schendler says the focus must be
on reducing emissions to make sure global temperatures don’t rise more than 2 degrees Celsius (2.7

degrees Fahrenheit) compared to preindustrial times. The rise is currently about 1.1 degrees Celsius (2
degrees Fahrenheit), and climate scientists warn that as it increases so too will extreme weather
events.

“If we can stabilize warming at sub 2 degrees Celsius, we’re going to prevent billions of people from
suffering. That’s profound,” he said.

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The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and
environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental
coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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