When the Aspen Ski Company launched its environment division—a kind of green management team, think tank, and consultancy—it was the first of its kind in the ski industry: an in-house watchdog to prevent the resort from gorging on energy and trampling its fragile ecosystem. Ten years later, the division’s director, Auden Schendler, spends at least as much time thinking about saving Aspen as he does about saving its environment. Both, it turns out, are highly vulnerable to climate change.
"I’m not concerned about all the snow going away in the year 2100," says Schendler’s longtime boss, Pat O’Donnell, who just stepped down as Aspen’s CEO. The real threat is less dramatic, and more immediate. Most American ski resorts pull in as much as a quarter of their earnings during Christmas vacation. And December snow packs and freezes into a thick floor of ice that can sustain man-made flurries when spring comes. But powder, natural or man-made, only piles up nicely when the weather stays between 18 and 24 degrees at night. An increase in temperature means steeper snowmaking costs and a shorter season—both money-losing prospects for resorts.
Since the 1950’s, temperatures across the American West have climbed an average of 1.4 degrees—and nearly all scientists believe that warming will continue, and accelerate. "I talked to my head of snowmaking and asked, ’What happens if I take away a degree and a half?’" O’Donnell recalls. "His answer was, ’Holy shit.’"
That realization has spread across the U.S. ski industry since the early part of this decade. Dozens of resorts, including Aspen’s Rocky Mountain neighbor, Vail, and Mammoth Mountain in California’s Sierra Nevada (even more vulnerable than the Rockies, according to climate models), have copied Aspen’s example and opened their own environment divisions. Once wary of Aspen’s activism, the National Ski Areas Association has partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council to lobby Congress on behalf of climate-change legislation, and produced public service announcements for its members. Even some smaller mountains are investing in green projects. Last year, Jiminy Peak, in Massachusetts, built a $3.9 million wind turbine on the mountain, and Sugar Bowl, near Lake Tahoe, became the first resort to offset all of its emissions with green-energy purchases. More than 20 mountains, including Aspen, had followed by the start of this ski season.
To be sure, ski resorts, although resource hogs, barely register as contributors to climate change compared with heavy industry or the world’s half billion cars and trucks. Conservation on the slopes can only accomplish so much. Schendler believes, in fact, that it may be off the mountain where ski companies can do the greatest good. That means lobbying for new legislation; presenting the threat to ski business as an early warning of harmful climate change (one that is easier to grasp than slushy polar caps or migrating butterflies); and turning mountains into labs to experiment with the kinds of green innovations bigger industries could adopt.
"My mandate to Auden was to become an activist," O’Donnell says. "We have to get involved at the state and national level. Otherwise, we’ll be sitting around with a squeaky-clean record, and we’ll say, ’We did everything.’ And we’ll be bankrupt, because of climate change."
"Historically, the ski industry was perceived as environmentally benign," says Schendler, who previously worked as an analyst at the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmentalist think tank. Still, by the 1990’s, skiing and snowboarding had become big business. Resorts cleared forest for expansions and drew more power from the grid every year. When O’Donnell came to Aspen from Patagonia in 1994, he figured the company had an obligation to its natural surroundings. And if the bigger resorts around the Rockies continued their sprawling development, Aspen might flourish as a boutique, back-to-nature alternative.