Greening Skiing

Greening Skiing

This may come under the category of Too Much Information, but I relieved myself the other day into a waterless urinal near the summit of the Park City Mountain Resort. A plaque informed me that each environmentally friendly urinal at the ski resort saves about 40,000 gallons of fresh water a year.

This is part of what the Park City calls its "Environmental Commitment." Right on every trail map, the resort says it "recognizes that the environment is one of our most valuable assets." Now there's a bold statement. It might be more attention-grabbing to say that if we don't do something about global warming soon, Park City will have the climate of, say, Phoenix, before too many decades go by.

But what does it mean for the ski industry to make an environmental commitment? Skiing requires chopping down big trees on beautiful mountains to make way for ski runs and slope-side second homes. It's an utterly unnecessary pursuit that usually takes place far from population centers, requiring air travel or long car trips. It's energy intensive, too. Think of artificial snow-making, and all those steaming hot tubs.

Still, I love to ski. Just being in the mountains makes me happy. And skiing has been a great way for me to spend time over the years with my brothers and my daughters.

As a tree-hugging (not literally) skier hoping for insight into this conundrum, I have been reading an advance copy of "Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution" by Auden Schendler. Schendler is executive director of community and environmental responsibility at Aspen Skiing Company, a business known for its sustainability efforts. 


I'm halfway through the book, and I'm enjoying it a great deal. Right up front, Schendler takes on those who tell him that the best thing that the Aspen ski resort and, for the matter, the entire town of Aspen could do for sustainability would be to shut down:

“Certainly Aspen's lifestyle is lavish. But then, so is the entire U.S. lifestyle. You've heard the stations before: we're 5 percent of the world's population, and we use 25 percent of the planet's resources. Americans burn more fossil fuel per capita than any nation on earth …

“So what do we do? Close down Aspen, then close down the United States? The U.S. is hugely wasteful compared to Europe … and actually, Europe is pretty bad compared to India … Do we shut down Paris?

“In short there's no way to draw the moral energy line in the sand showing which activities are OK and which are not.”

Fair enough. So the more reasonable question for Aspen, Park City and every other business is: Are you doing as much as you can to be environmentally responsible?

Park City's record is mixed in that regard. The resort says that it offsets 100 percent of its power consumption from renewable energy sources -- a claim that is hard to verify, without knowing more detail, but let's assume that it's true. The resort's fleet of snowcats is "powered entirely by biodiesel fuel." One of the best things about staying in Park City area is the free, well-run public bus system which shuttles people around resorts, lodging and restaurants. Then there are those waterless urinals. You can read more at www.saveoursnow.net.

But much of this appears to be for show. On the mountain, you can eat chili in a paper bowl that is 100 percent compostable, but the bowls get thrown in with other trash, making the claim worthless. There's lots of self-congratulation on the website, but no mention (that I could find) of the resort's overall carbon footprint, or its goals.

And, as Schendler argues in his book, the most important measures of a company's environmental commitment may be well its actions in the policy arena, because that's where the climate change problem will be solved, or not. He writes:

“Before businesses can effectively lobby for government action on climate, they need to have done something themselves or they lose their credibility and appear to be hypocrites. This may be the single most important reason businesses and individuals should implement policy reductions: so that their political case-making has more power and credibility.”

This is a great point. Aspen measures up well in this regard -- it filed an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in a lawsuit requiring EPA to regulate GHG emissions. It also joined a Greenpeace campaign against Kimberly Clark, the forest products firm. I've never heard of Park City doing anything like that. 

More to the point, why don't we hear more from the entire ski industry on the climate-change issue? They have databases of skiers -- why not enlist their customers to support federal action? The same could be said for the travel industry. It's not just ski areas, but beaches that are threatened by climate disruptions. Where are Marriott, Hilton, Starwood and the airlines when it comes to global warming policy? Actually, I know where the airlines are -- they don't want their emissions to be regulated. Marriott, by contrast, is taking steps to help preserve rainforests.

Unfortunately, only a handful of progressive companies, including Nike and Starbucks, have taken bold positions on the climate change issue. They're part of a coalition called Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, or BICEP.) Only when a lot more companies join them will the odds get better than we can truly save our snow.