Only in the rarified world of destination ski markets do Vail Resorts Inc. and the Aspen Skiing Co. seem all that different. They both sell pristine nature, adventurous sport and pampered luxury to the world's wealthiest people. Vail, a publicly owned corporation, has a somewhat more diversified market with its resorts more proximate to major metropolitan areas, both in Colorado and in California. Aspen's has private owners, the Crowns, a family from Chicago that gained Forbes 400 wealth in the trenches of industrial activity and military manufacturing.
But in the realm of social action, the two companies, like their hometowns, couldn't be more different. Aspen has always been eager to raise a voice about issues of the day, while Vail is intrinsically more cautious.
The different approaches were evident in December. Early in the month, Save our Winters, a group partly financed by the Aspen Skiing Co., released a report authored by a New Hampshire professor warning of havoc ahead for ski areas because of rising temperatures caused by human-caused greenhouse gases. Among those quoted in the reports was Auden Schendler, the Aspen Skiing Co.'s vice president for sustainability, who called on industry officials to "get off their asses" and treat climate change like an "existential threat."
Soon after, Rob Katz, the chief executive of Vail Resorts, had an op-ed in The Denver Post that seemed to be a direct response. "Count me in the category of someone who is very worried about climate change, but also someone who tries not to look at every weather pattern as 'proof' of something,'" he wrote.
Science is on his side in this. It's tempting to see the Apocalypse in every extreme of weather, whether drought or epic snowstorms, hurricanes or pine beetles. Climate scientists have typically warned against hasty conclusions. Indeed, while many saw in Katrina, the hurricane that wrecked New Orleans in 2005, as evidence of a storm fuelled by the energy of expanding global heat, the consensus opinion of scientists was that the storm intensity fell within the natural range of variability.
Climate change will only clearly become evident in the rear-view mirror, has been the cautious and standard attitude. Warming is clear enough. In places, such as higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada, earlier spring melt is clear. But other things are not so clear.
Recently, with Hurricane Sandy, the debate began again. Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., who is farther on the edge than most of his colleagues, ventured on one radio interview that he believed the hurricane had 10 to 15 per cent more energy because of global warming.
Then, in Katz's op-ed came this: "But to the folks trying to alarm people with images of melting snow, here is the dirty little secret: When the effects of climate change really show up, no one will care about skiing at Aspen and Vail. They will be rightly focused on the wildlife, natural habitat and people of our planet, about the sea levels, flooding and natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy."
In an email, Vail Resorts spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga told The Aspen Times that Katz's comment was not a direct response to the strategy of Aspen Skiing Co., nor to the latest warning contained in a study by two professors from the University of New Hampshire.
Maybe not, but it sure looked like it.
Like most ski area operators, both Aspen and Vail have undertaken efforts to reduce energy consumption. It's a simple matter of good business. If labour is the biggest expense at most resorts, energy to power ski lifts, light cafeterias, fuel snowmobiles and whatever else create giant bills. Both have also worked on renewable energy.
Aspen Skiing Co. was out of the chutes first: a small hydro system at Snowmass, solar panels here and there, and purchase of wind power — it has also worked to become more efficient. In its latest report, Aspen Skiing Co. says it has held carbon emissions flat between 2000 and 2011, despite company growth and revenue increases of 41 per cent.
Aspen's next report should be considerably more upbeat about its own efforts. Last year, the company funded a project elsewhere in Colorado that captures methane vented from a coalmine, generating electricity. That produces carbon dioxide, but then carbon dioxide is 21 times less powerful in trapping heat over a century's time than is methane.
Vail has also taken energy efficiency to heart. As Katz noted in his essay, the company has reduced its energy use 10 per cent and is gunning for a 20 per cent reduction. How these simple statics compare with Aspen's reductions is impossible to know.
In renewable energy, Vail has also explored options, including the possibility of a giant wind turbine atop Vail Mountain, as Massachusetts's Jiminy Peak did. But the idea was discarded, at least partly because of concerns about ice being flung from turbine blades.
Several years ago, Vail also very publicly announced its plans to invest in renewable energy credits for purchase of wind energy. The announcement, carefully orchestrated with all manner of politicians in attendance and coming at a time when interest in renewable energy was peaking, gleaned lavish headlines as far away as New York City. After a few years, however, the company quietly ended its commitment to wind. It instead invested in restoration of forests close to Denver burned in fires. Many had found fault with the strategy, doubting the realness of the wind. Despite what the company's website announced, Vail wasn't really powered by wind.
In advocacy, the two companies look very different, as well. Through Schendler, Aspen has adopted the tone of an evangelist full of fire and brimstone. The apocalypse is near. But Aspen also sees itself having a powerful voice. It paints skiing as a looming victim to climate change and insists that ski areas, through their prominence, have a responsibility to make the case for energy changes.
This strategy was manifest in the case of Massachusetts vs. EPA. Massachusetts argued that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a responsibility under the powerful Clean Air Act, to regulate carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Aspen filed a brief in support of Massachusetts, and a Harvard Business School case study two years ago suggested — but without supporting evidence — that Aspen's brief helped cause the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favour of Massachusetts. Aspen probably has hosted Supreme Court justices, but whether the experience changed their mind when ruling in this matter is speculative. But Schendler was absolutely correct in predicting that it would instantly create a climate policy in the Untied States. The vise of the EPA is slowly squeezing coal-burning power plants.
More recently, Aspen Skiing led the charge for the local business chamber to leave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of the latter group's resistance to climate change policy.
Aspen's position is laid out even more clearly in this passage from the company's latest sustainability report: "Most businesses trying to be sustainable focus on greening their operations and products. But that's not nearly enough to stop climate change, and therefore doesn't achieve true sustainability. That's why corporations must become climate activists, pushing for big-scale solutions."
Vail has been willing to speak out about climate change on occasion. In 2007, Katz was a prime speaker when then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter laid out his Colorado Climate Action Plan. But the company has generally resisted the grab-the-bullhorn approach of Aspen.
The approach of Vail has been to control what it can and save the sermon. "This stance sums up my feeling about climate change and the ski industry," wrote Luke Cartin, the company's sustainability director, in a Linked-in statement that directed readers to the Katz op-ed.
At the end of the day, neither ski company should be confused with an order of Benedictine monks. Destination resorts are not in the business of austerity. Travel remains a carbon-intensive activity. In this, Aspen and Vail are so much alike.
More of Allen Best's reporting and essays can be found at http://mountaintownnews.net.
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