Colorado ski industry adds teeth to climate change talk

Attendees of the annual ski season kickoff breakfast with Summit County's resort chief operating officers received keynote speaker Auden Schendler's climate action challenge on Oct. 2 in Keystone.
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Last week in Keystone, a modern-day prophet on climate change addressed a room of several hundred high country residents as they chomped away at their breakfasts, daring each of them to accept a simple challenge.

“I’m asking you to save civilization,” he said unabashedly. “You’re being asked to do a major thing and your response should be, ‘Oooh, I don’t know if I’m your person, I can barely wake up in the morning.’ But the truth is history is replete with people of no power at all who have done incredible things.”

The directive seemed straightforward enough to Auden Schendler, who is regarded by many as an oracle on the future of outdoor-centric life and sustaining human existence as we know it, but it was perhaps not the lesson attendees might have expected over their buffet bacon and eggs. However, if maintaining the mountain lifestyles they’ve come to enjoy is important, he said, the time to act is now.

“There’s risk in not taking action vocally on climate,” said Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of sustainability. “There’s opportunity in moving (on it), and we can solve this problem.”

Schendler, also the chair of the activist group Protect Our Winters, was the keynote for the annual winter season kickoff and he took the opportunity to present a grim yet optimistic portrayal of the ski industry’s prospects if they don’t collectively work to combat the warming of our globe. Efficiency-minded activities like swapping out light bulbs, no matter the scope, aren’t going to do it alone, he said.

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“He’s absolutely right, these are business decisions,” said Gary Rodgers, president and CEO of Copper Mountain Resort. “These aren’t really necessarily things that are going to change the world, but they’re certainly the right decisions for our business.”

Copper’s other sustainability initiatives like its Green Team and its decade-old employee-driven Copper Environmental Fund help to balance environmental stewardship and fiscal responsibility, as well as educate the next generation of conservation custodians. Those efforts only continue to ramp up by the season given concerns over declines in annual snowpacks.

The pledge of Vail Resorts this past summer to a net-zero footprint on the environment by 2030 through renewable energy sources, carbon offsets in addition to improved recycling and composting programs should be applauded, said Schendler. The willingness to openly advocate for national and international policies that prevent the planet from reaching catastrophic temperature increases — no matter the negative public relations or financial impacts — is much more significant, and the true path to success, he continued.

“It is important, our commitment to better results within our environment,” said John Buhler, COO of Breckenridge Ski Resort. “This community is so incredible, almost every single town and the county are working toward these goals. We’re very proud to join everyone on this journey.”

The willingness to install more solar panels and reduce overall emissions by staying up on state-of-the-art snowmaking and grooming technologies are steps in the right direction, agreed Alan Henceroth, COO of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. It’s doubling down and making decisions that may be unpopular with some patrons or facing criticism that is really putting money where your mouth is.

“Climate change is real and we really need to act to do something about it,” Henceroth said to a room full of applause. “We really have to try and find meaningful measures, because this is going to have to change. So don’t be afraid to do the right thing.”

The benefit of many of these prescribed choices, of course, is that they’re also economically advantageous. Not to mention that prolonging the viability of the ski industry is in both owner and operator’s best interests just the same as the powder hounds who frequent the resorts.

“Most of the things we care about we agree on, help business and protect the environment,” said Schendler. “This is bold, but it’s business, too.”

And, he concluded, you don’t have to be the chief of a ski area to do your part. In fact, just the opposite, and it’s really a civic duty as people try to come up with solutions for perpetuating a livable, playable planet.

“There’s nothing more American, more citizen-like you could do than calling your congressperson,” he said. “We think that the actions that will help solve climate change are driving a Prius, changing our light bulbs, insulating our house. But the scale of the problem is too big, and you have to wield whatever power you have. We have to put bigger policy in place.”

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