How Vail Resorts is helping to re-envision the future of the White River National Forest
Company’s $1.5M contribution to the National Forest Foundation’s Ski Conservation Fund will enable bigger and better projects on local public land through greater community collaboration
Since 2006, The National Forest Foundation’s Ski Conservation Fund has offered guests of certain ski areas and lodges the opportunity to give back to public lands. Locally, through its micro-donation system, the fund has been able to raise well over $7 million in 31 community organizations for projects within the White River National Forest.
And since the fund’s inception, Vail Resorts — including its resorts at Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail and Beaver Creek — has helped to contribute funds as well as guidance to fund projects within the White River National Forest.
However, in the past year, Vail Resorts saw a significant increase in the number of donations from its guests. Previously, according to Nicky DeFord, director of community engagement at Vail Resorts, the company was contributing anywhere between $400,000 and $600,000 a year to the fund. Over the past year, it has contributed $1.5 million.
According to Jamie Werner, the National Forest Foundation’s stewardship coordinator for the White River National Forest, this $1.5 million contribution “elevated the fund to a new level.”
Not only did the contribution and participation by Vail Resorts lead to the creation of Werner’s role itself, but it is going to lead to bigger and longer-term projects within the White River National Forest.
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“The fund has really grown to the point where we really feel we can do more focused, bigger, potentially multi-year projects and to where we can really look to the communities of Eagle and Summit counties to help provide guidance as to how those funds are invested,” Werner said. “Vail contributing $1.5 million to the fund over the last year is a significant increase and is really going to enable some next level work.”
A re-envisioned fund
Werner described the Ski Conservation Fund as an “innovative partnership” in which guests from participating ski areas — which outside of Vail Resorts’ local areas also includes Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin in Summit County — are able to donate $1 or more to the National Forest Foundation when purchasing online tickets, season passes or staying a night at a resort-owned lodge.
Then, the National Forest Foundation, as the congressionally chartered nonprofit for the U.S. Forest Service, uses its federally appropriated funds to match 50 cents to every dollar donated.
While this micro-donation effort is remaining in place, this year, the foundation has taken steps to change how the funds are distributed.
Previously, funds were distributed via a competitive grant system. Under this, nonprofits could apply for grants on an annual basis and the National Forest Foundation would distribute the grants under guidance from those resorts involved with the fund.
However, according to DeFord, following the acquisition of Crested Butte, Vail Resorts became involved with the National Forest Foundation in Gunnison County, which was working as a community to determine the best way to distribute fund dollars.
“I immediately was just enamored with that process,” DeFord said, adding that she loved the way it engaged many voices in the decision-making and enabled the foundation to find other investors as well. Which were two things she communicated when asking the National Forest Foundation to consider doing this in other communities.
“Vail Resorts has been leading the charge on this effort and I commend them for thinking creatively on ways they can engage their guests in stewardship and for their vision in really restructuring the fund and taking a new approach, trying something new and really engaging with the community,” Werner said.
Out of these discussions, the foundation created two community advisory committees — one in Eagle County and the other in Summit County.
The committees are comprised of representatives from business partners (like Vail Resorts), the tourism sector, the lodging sector, federal agencies, local Forest Service agencies, state agencies (which includes Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the Eagle County committee), county commissioners and community nonprofits. In addition, each committee has three at-large seats: one focused on watershed health, one focused on recreation, and one that acts as a community liaison to ensure that the work benefits and represents a diverse population.
“The previous approach resulted in projects that were great but were a little bit more scattered across the region,” Werner said. “The new approach to this program allows us to channel those funds to where they are most needed on the forest and where they provide the most community benefit.”
Localizing funding, projects
One of the main benefits of this re-envisioned fund, as Werner referred to it, is that it helps localize efforts within the local White River National Forest. This is something with which National Forests have traditionally struggled.
Currently, the way the National Forest system is structured, all funds generated by the White River National Forest — including permit and campground fees — don’t stay in the White River National Forest. Instead, they go into a general U.S. Forest Service fund.
“What this program does is it provides an avenue that the folks who are here, enjoying the White River National Forest — and not just visitors, but locals as well — it’s an opportunity to keep funds here to benefit this forest,” Werner said. “The numbers are looking more abysmal each year for government support for individual forests, so this is a way to not only engage the guests and locals in supporting their local resource, but providing critical capacity to get work done on the National Forest.”
Outside of funding, the White River National Forest needs “on-the-ground capacity,” Werner added.
Scott Fitzwilliams, the forest supervisor for the White River National Forest, echoed this, stating that his office has a thin budget and a thin capacity to do projects the office deems as necessary.
The re-envisioned fund “helps increase our capacity to do more restoration and recreation work,” he said. “The opportunity of this new model is to leverage within our community, both the mind power that goes into it, the networking, the resources, combining it with the resources of the National Forest Foundation — I think it is going to be a really positive step forward to make (the fund) something bigger than what it was.”
For Vail Resorts, this type of localized and community-driven effort is something that drives all of its philanthropic efforts through its Epic Promise program.
“We’re focused on our local communities with all our money and we give really, in three areas. We give to critical community need, as defined by the community,” DeFord said. “We’re focused on being a partner that fully supports the long-term health and sustainability of the communities where we operate.”
Vail Resorts’ work with the National Forest Foundation falls into its environmental philanthropic work through Epic Promise, particularly its Commitment to Zero, which includes goals of zero net emissions, zero waste to landfill as well as zero net operating impact on forests and habitat.
“Commitment to Zero is an incredibly powerful program that’s really in our own house — how are we making sure that the things we are doing in our operations are as environmentally progressive as possible to get to our Commitment to Zero,” DeFord said. “And this is one of the programs (the Ski Conservation Fund) that now, we’re looking outside of our house to say, ‘How can we start to influence decisions in the environment, outside of the area that we operate?’”
Just getting started
While the committees are still coming together, the National Forest Foundation and Vail Resorts identified four projects — two in Eagle County and two in Summit County — that showcase the enhanced opportunities made possible by the new model.
The projects were selected by Vail Resorts and the foundation based on three key criteria: they addressed priority needs from the Forest Service and the community, they were shovel-ready projects and could be implemented this season, and they showcased the holistic approach the new fund promises to provide.
Here in Eagle County, this includes a trail improvement and sustainability project on the Meadow Mountain Trail near Minturn, scheduled to be completed this fall. The project includes the rehabilitation of certain areas and a number of reroutes to improve user experience on the trail and make it more sustainable in the long run.
According to Werner, this embodies the “hybrid approach” that the new fund model employs as it has engaged a number of community partners to make it happen. Not only did the foundation issue a grant to the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance to advise on the project, but it also hired a local contractor to do the manual work.
In all future work from the fund, Werner expressed that it is the intent to continue working with its local nonprofit and business partners on any future projects of programs.
The second project, scheduled for next summer, is the construction of a new trail in Vail, Mill Creek Trail, which will increase capacity on the area’s heavily trafficked trail system.
These two projects — along with the two in Summit County — were the first to be funded in part by Vail Resorts $1.5 million contribution. Starting next year, the two committees will inform future investments and projects in the White River National Forest made possible by the remaining balance and future Ski Conservation Fund donations. According to Werner, based on the committees’ initial conversation, priority areas could include watershed-scale ecological health, sustainable recreation, education and outreach as well as access and inclusion.
“The idea of bringing a community together around the table to talk about the things we need to focus on collectively together is powerful and is new for Eagle County. We’re excited to get started on that work,” DeFord said, adding that already, in the committees’ first two meetings, the people around the table have provided thoughtful insight and guidance around where the money should go in the communities.
And as climate change continues to shift our understanding around the natural world we live and explore in, environmental stewardship — like the kind exemplified in this partnership — will become more vital to the sustainability of our public lands.
“The National Forests are a public resource and folks should enjoy them but we need to be able to provide White River National Forest with the capacity support to address issues of use, sustainability, ecological impact. We’re looking at all of the ways that our forest landscapes are rapidly changing in hotter, dryer climates,” Werner said. “The needs are changing and evolving very quickly and it’s just so great that Vail Resorts took a leadership role in pivoting this fund in a new direction so we can more quickly and nimbly address some of those issues.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.