Ski industry warming up to greenhouse action 

Public relations campaign abetted by small but concrete steps to reduce impacts

Two years ago California legislators were considering a bill that proposed to push car manufacturers to create more fuel-efficient sports utility vehicles. To the surprise of many, the California Ski Industry Association endorsed the action.

Bob Roberts, executive director of the ski association, remembers being lobbied intensely by a representative of the manufacturers. Don’t you have any idea what this means? the lobbyist wanted to know.

"Our response," says Roberts, "was direct: ‘We think SUVs are terrific, so just clean them up.’"

Although by no means in lock-step, ski area operators are acknowledging global warming. Skiing and snowboarding, they concede, are threatened by rising temperatures. Less directly, ski area operators also admit they and their customers are part of the problem.

One of the first in the industry to publicly embrace the science that predicts global warming was the Aspen Skiing Co.

"It’s probably been about five years, at the time of our first sustainability report, when we decided to reduce our emission of greenhouse gases," says Pat O’Donnell, Aspen’s chief executive officer.

At first, the company focused only on its own role, not so much as a company that pollutes the air, but instead as a customer of electricity that is primarily produced by coal-fired power plants. It began, for example, retrofitting lighting fixtures with compact fluorescent light bulbs, which use less power than conventional incandescent bulbs.

Two years ago, says O’Donnell, the company decided to more boldly try to persuade other companies and industries to begin to embrace changes.

"I don’t think you can do that until you have your own house relatively straightened up," he explains. "We think our house is in order so that we can get out of here and try to promote changes on the state and national levels."

O’Donnell’s essential message is that the warmer temperatures now being predicted are not that far off. "It’s hard to look that far, but ‘that far’ comes pretty quickly," he says. "I’ve been in the industry for three decades, and it comes at the blink of an eye."

Most significant has been the shifted stance of the National Ski Areas Association. Just a few years ago the Colorado-based organization didn’t want to touch the issue of long-term climatic change. But in 2003, NSAA launched its first Keep Winter Cool promotional campaign.

Keep Winter Cool is delicately crafted. It has a happy face that, without bogging down in the science, says future skiing depends upon reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It also tells people how they can lessen their contribution to creating greenhouse gases. And finally, it highlights what ski-area operators themselves are doing, such as the use of biodiesel fuel in snow groomers, to reduce emissions.

In quiet, deliberate ways, the program acknowledges the ski industry’s dependence upon the use of fossil fuels. After all, if ski areas themselves do not have smoke stacks they are major buyers of electricity, and for Colorado ski areas that electricity is generated by coal-burning plants. To that end, the Keep Winter Cool program now puts efforts made to reduce those emissions in terms of carbon dioxide per skier visit. It’s a glass-half-full analysis that nonetheless suggests how ski area operators could do better.

But the ski industry sees its most powerful role as a catalyst for changing others. "I think we are a leader in bringing attention to the issue," says Geraldine Link, NSAA’s director of public policy.

Journalists are easily attracted to the story of an industry that is so immediately affected by rising temperatures. Last February, for example, CNN Headline News had a major piece in a program called "Down to Earth."

Quietly prodded by Aspen, NSAA has even more boldly organized the support of now 70 ski areas for a bill currently in Congress. Co-sponsored by two former presidential candidates, Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Joseph Lieberman of New Jersey, the bill proposes to limit emissions of greenhouse gases by regulation unlike the voluntary (and so far unsuccessful) approach of President George W. Bush. The bill got 43 votes and hence failed, but is being reintroduced in the House of Representatives.

"I think sometime in this decade it will pass, as the general population becomes more knowledgeable and politicians become more knowledgeable," says Bill Jensen, chief operating officer of Vail Mountain. The five ski areas owned by Vail Resorts all have endorsed the bill.

Vail, although less publicly than Aspen, has begun to follow the same path of energy conservation with such things as replacement of inefficient light fixtures and purchase of a block of wind-powered energy that is comparable to that purchased by Aspen. As well the company is seeking to build four wind turbines on Vail Mountain that would provide enough energy to power eight lifts in winter and two in summer.

While Jensen says these changes are driven by a desire to reduce greenhouse gases, he also sees them more broadly as ways to improve the company’s reputation as an environmental steward in the world’s eyes.

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