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The Canary in the mine shaft — a trip to the Australian Alps

"We've taken this very special experience wrapped it in pro forma and called it a product. That's so wrong. We so undersell what we have to offer... "

Arthur DeJong, mountain prophet


It's not like Arthur DeJong needed more winter. After all, Whistler Blackcomb's point-man for all things environmental had spent more than his fair share on the slopes these past few months.

What with decompressing from his Olympics duties, and devising new plans for summer trails in the alpine, and making sure his staff was doing all it could to mitigate WB's environmental footprint, DeJong could have easily declined the invitation to speak at a ski industry conference Down Under a few weeks ago. But when the Australian government calls...

"Insofar as climate change goes," explains DeJong with his trademark grin, "the snow-sliding business is often seen by others in the tourism industry as the 'canary in the mine shaft.' In other words, our industry is going to feel the effects of climate change much more directly - and much sooner - than most other businesses. Well, if that metaphor is correct, then Australia's 'canary' is the furthest one down that shaft."

Meaning? Australia is already facing the reality of a snow-less future. A marginal mountain player at the best of times the country has seen its winters shrink and its snowline climb at a frightening pace in recent years. And, like all good researchers, DeJong is fascinated by the process. Which is a big reason, he admits, why he travelled all those miles last month.

"I was first invited to speak Down Under back in 2006," says my favourite corporate green-man.

And no, I'm not being facetious. One of the most forthright and vigorously honest people I know, DeJong walks a very fine line between hypocrisy and advocacy. A quietly passionate guy (I've described him in past stories as a cross between a Jesuit missionary and Casper the Friendly Ghost), he'd rather advocate for change from the inside than rail and shout and criticize from the outside.

And his track record is pretty good. Time and again WB has been recognized by its peers for its commitment to progressive environmental principles. And while we can always quibble about the company's follow-through, there's no question that over the years DeJong has quietly steered the corporate ship in a greener direction. Saving what probably adds up to millions of dollars in the process.

But I'm getting sidetracked again.

"Australia's ski resorts were all built within the country's national parks," explains DeJong. "There's more than a billion dollars worth of infrastructure there. So the Australian government has a huge stake in the future of the country's snowsport business."

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