Ski resorts aim to reduce environmental impact

By Rachel Anderson Explore Big Sky Contributor

BIG SKY – Ski towns depend on cool climates and natural resources, and many ski communities are taking proactive steps to minimize environmental impacts. For Big Sky, recent changes in the local business climate could create an opportunity to implement these types of sustainable practices.

Last October, CrossHarbor Capital Partners – principle owner of the Yellowstone Club – and Boyne Resorts – owner of Big Sky Resort – announced the merger of Moonlight Basin and Big Sky. With this merger, the opportunity and responsibility for one of the area’s biggest players to reduce its carbon footprint has increased.

“Part of sustainability is behavioral change,” said Kristin Blackler, Director of Sustainability at Montana State University. “It’s helping educate and inspire people to change their actions.”

Blackler refers to “Our Common Future,” also known as the Brundtland Report, which was published in 1987 and laid out a definitive description of sustainability: “A series of activities and development that meet the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Released by the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, the document put environmental matters strongly on the political agenda, aiming to propose long-term strategies for sustainable development by the turn of the 21st century. It sought to correlate the environment and development as one concern.

“In a nutshell, it’s living as if the future matters,” Blackler said. “Being sustainable enables us to utilize natural resources in a conscious and constructive form, reducing human impact… [Having] the infrastructure in place is critical.”

Mountain views, clean air and access to great ski terrain are a few benefits to living near a ski area. But ski resorts by nature impact the environment. Powering ski lifts, building hotels and condos, and transporting resort visitors can affect air quality, while waste production and snowmaking can affect a local water system.

As climate change and sustainable solutions become a larger part of the national conversation, ski resorts are working on ways to diminish environmental impacts.

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Lofty goals: Moonlight Basin

Moonlight Basin opened as an independent ski resort in December 2003. Beginning as a real estate development called Moonlight Basin Ranch, the resort had lofty and successful conservation goals.

The Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition Environmental Survey, released annually, evaluates “ski area responsiveness to the needs of environmental stewardship, local communities, and the recreational public in a manner that is consistent to changing economic and environmental policies.”

According to the survey, Moonlight’s founders in 1992 set a goal to preserve 80 – 85 percent of their original land purchase by establishing two large wildlife corridors and implementing constraints based land-planning methodology. They placed more than 14,500 acres under conservation easements, with the help of conservation buyers. The three partners – Lee Poole, Joe Vujovich and Keith Brown – aimed to protect 22,000 acres of the original 25,000-acre land purchase, through the implementation of Moonlight Basin’s Master Plan.

“The environment is our golden goose,” said Kevin Germain, former leader of planning and development as well as environmental stewardship for Moonlight Basin. “It makes economic sense to be sustainable.”

Specific projects included participating in a volunteer monitoring effort on Jack Creek, the major stream running west from Moonlight Basin into the Madison River. Volunteers and staff collected water quality samples from eight monitoring stations installed in the creek, three of which were on Moonlight property. Data provided continuous flow and temperature measurements for each month, and the Madison Conservation District compiles an annual report each winter.

Moonlight also partnered with the Jack Creek Preserve Foundation, which oversees the 4,500-acre protected preserve west of Big Sky that connects two sections of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The foundation focuses on wildlife conservation and youth education, and Moonlight worked together with the preserve on habitat management, among other projects.

Moonlight used energy star appliances to save energy, according to the survey, as well as low-flow toilets and storage for snowmaking runoff.

In a section on addressing global climate change, the survey examined a ski area’s practices in terms of environmental soundness. It noted that Moonlight’s renewable energy program used photovoltaic power, which coverts solar radiation to direct current electricity to generate electrical power in remote locations, and in 2012 the resort installed a solar-powered well pump for its residential development fire protection system. Additionally, the Six Shooter and Derringer chairlifts were retrofitted with specialized filters making them run 10 percent more efficiently.

Finally, the survey noted that Moonlight’s Environmental Stewardship Policy tracked water usage, recycling, energy, solid waste, and fuel consumption, and that the area recycled cardboard, paper, aluminum cans and plastic.

Although Moonlight Basin as a resort ultimately fell into bankruptcy, Germain hopes some of its conservation values can live on at Big Sky Resort.

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Building anew: Big Sky Resort

Dax Schieffer, Big Sky Resort’s Human Resource Director, is confident in the resort’s sustainable future, particularly after the merger.

“It’s our responsibility as a company to see what needs to be done,” Schieffer said.

Big Sky’s “Green Team” is made up of department heads from around the resort, Schieffer said, adding that the resort promotes open lines of communication in each department. This way, he says, ideas and concerns can be made known to higher ups via a chain of command, which Schieffer oversees.

As far as specifics efforts, Schieffer pointed out that BSR houses approximately 400 winter employees near the resort, minimizing transportation impact. BSR, along with Moonlight in past years, also contributes to the Skyline bussing system, which provides mass transit throughout Big Sky and a link to Bozeman.

As a creative way to reuse soap from its hotels, the resort has become part of the Global Soap Project, an Atlanta, Ga.-based nonprofit that collects partially used and discarded soap from participants, recycles it, and distributes it to people in third world countries.

“Nothing has diminished since the merger,” said Germain, who joined teams with Schieffer at Big Sky Resort when the resorts came together.

Both Germain and Schieffer are members of the Big Sky Natural Resource Council, which aspires to “preserve and enhance Big Sky’s natural resources for future generations,” and is currently working on an initiative to make Big Sky more bear safe, and taking action with the Healthy Forest initiative, which aims to help protect forested land.

BSR also partners with the Blue Water Task Force, a local watershed group, and contributes to Travelers for Open Land, which helps to conserve open lands around Montana.

In the offseason, BSR unplugs the aeration systems at the Summit and Shoshone hotels, which saves 25 percent of water use, according to Schieffer. Additionally, he added, the resort preserves hotel room heat with hotel key activation, and recycles cardboard, paper, aluminum cans and plastic.

“Ideas are not on the drawing board anymore,” Germain said of the resort’s sustainability efforts. “[Since the merger], we are able to move forward.”

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Leading the industry: Aspen and Jackson Hole

Aspen Skiing Company is an industry leader in implementing sustainable programs, with its diverse approach setting the standard for the U.S. ski industry since 1999. ASC operates the four ski areas in the town of Aspen, Colo.: Snowmass, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk.

ASC began maintaining and exploring a range of renewable energy projects in 1997, among them wind and solar power, according to ASC’s sustainability website. In its annual sustainability report, ASC discloses statistics on environmental impacts and discusses the company’s efforts to reduce those impacts.

Auden Schendler, Vice President of Sustainability at ASC, has helped pioneer, develop and implement the program during this time. Along with other ASC employees, Schendler has taken action in Washington, D.C. approximately 10 times, lobbying legislators to tackle climate change.

“The most important thing is mobilizing the snowsports community to create the political will for legislation,” Schendler said in a phone interview. “Climate legislation [must be] comprehensive in addressing the problem through U.S. policy.”

ASC’s online sustainability reports highlight the resorts’ collaboration with several partners to allow the first large coal mine methane-to-electricity project. With an investment of $5.5 million, the project captures waste methane vented from a coal mine in Somerset, Colo. to generate carbon-negative electricity for the ski resorts. The power generated from this project produces the energy ASC uses annually, while simultaneously destroying methane.

Another of the company’s environmental accomplishments, Schendler says, is the development of the ski industry’s first climate policy. Seeking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 25 percent from 2000 levels by 2020, ASC put goals in place to help facilitate changes.

The company also donates its old uniforms to impoverished communities in other countries; built one of the world’s first 11 LEED certified buildings in 2001; and created Aspen’s nonprofit Environmental Foundation, which works to protect and preserve ecosystems and habitat in the region.

Another ski resort leading by example is Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. As a founding member of the Climate Challenge, an initiative aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the ski industry, Jackson has made a statement to the snowsports world.

JHMR’s environmental policy targets pollution prevention; communicates work and policy to employees and the public; and follows the principles of the National Ski Area Association’s Sustainable Slopes Charter, which provides a structured program for sustainability and environmental practices for ski area owners and operators.

ASC and JHMR are the only two resorts in the U.S. to achieve ISO 14001 certification, a set of environmental standards that helps organizations improve environmental management. The certification means both resorts have met standards that demonstrate their commitment to the environment by reducing harmful practices and providing evidence of continual improvement in environmental management.

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The future

Without intervention, reports released by Protect Our Winters and the Natural Resources Defense Council show temperatures will rise nationwide, reducing snowfall in many places. The impact is sure to be felt throughout the snowsports community.

Organizations like Protect Our Winters aim to lead the fight against climate change through education and community-based projects.

In a joint statement issued on June 2 to the White House, POW, SnowSports Industries America, and the National Ski Areas Association stood in support of the Environmental Protection Agency carbon standards. “[We] applaud President Obama’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act,” the statement read. “It’s crucial that we take action now as a nation to target carbon emission and address climate change.”

For Big Sky and other ski areas, implementing sustainability-related initiatives will help preserve the natural resources these resorts and ski communities depend on.

Protect Our Winters’ website testifies to the importance the organization places on sustainability. “Skiing, as we know it, is on borrowed time.”

Rachel Anderson is a former editorial assistant at Explore Big Sky.