SUMMIT COUNTY - Vail Resorts' announcement that it will partner with the U.S. Forest Service in a $4 million effort to restore fire-damaged areas in a key Colorado watershed drew praise from conservation groups, but some criticism from elected officials in Summit County.
In a joint announcement Monday, Vail Resorts and the Forest Service said they will each put up $750,000 toward work in the Hayman fire area, covering about 137,000 acres. The rest of the money will be raised by the National Forest Foundation, a nonprofit fundraising group that supports the Forest Service.
Additionally, the resort chain's employees will donate 1,500 hours of work "on the ground" in the national forest, according to Rob Katz, Vail Resorts' chairman and chief executive.
But the location of the project and the simultaneous announcement that it will end a three-year run of buying renewable-energy credits spurred a few questions. And VR isn't alone in its move away from wind. Copper Mountain announced in early September that it will also stop buying renewable-energy credits for wind power, instead looking for ways to invest in environmental initiatives that have a more direct impact on the resort.
The past few seasons, the resorts have touted the fact that their lifts were powered by wind energy.
"I'm disappointed," said Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, a strong advocate for addressing climate change on the local and national levels. "It leaves a big, gaping hole in their commitment to climate protection," she said of Vail Resorts' decision.
Stiegelmeier said reducing greenhouse gases that cause global warming requires a sustained effort.
The ski industry and Summit County have a lot to lose from climate change, Stiegelmeier said. The company looked to be getting serious about addressing the issue in a meaningful way, but it "seems empty and hollow" without putting resources into renewable energy, she added.
Stiegelmeier and others also questioned the company's move to pour money into a project on the Front Range, when the forests around its High Country resorts are also in dire need of forest health work.
"It's extremely disappointing that they're not putting money and effort into mitigating the impacts of beetle kill locally," Stiegelmeier said.
Breckenridge Town Councilman Dave Rossi praised Vail Resorts for its environmental focus, but expressed similar concerns.
"We've got watersheds up here that are in trouble, and Vail uses the water to make snow," Rossi said.
"If people up here are questioning it, maybe it shows a disconnect ... the first reaction I heard was, why there? They don't have a ski area there," he said.
Vail Resorts officials focused on the positive aspects of the company's latest environmental initiative. Company chairman and chief executive officer Rob Katz said Vail Resorts wants to show environmental leadership on a statewide level. Katz said his company has been discussing the move for several months, both internally and with outside experts. The decision to stop buying renewable-energy credits was not made lightly.
"When we launched the renewable energy credit program in 2006, we knew it wasn't going to totally address climate change, but we wanted to take a leadership role," Katz said.
When Vail Resorts signed on, it was the second-largest purchaser of wind energy in the country. Now, Vail probably ranks about 27th or 28th, Katz said, saying the company's leadership in the area was effective in helping other companies move in that direction and giving the climate change issue a higher profile.
As the company approached the end of its three-year contract, Katz said the talks turned to trying to decide if there's a better way to show environmental leadership.
"We heard over and over from people like The Nature Conservancy that forest health and water quality are the biggest issues for Colorado," Katz said.
As for the location, Katz said the High Country is fortunate to have forests that will regenerate quickly. By contrast, parts of the Hayman area were scorched so severely it could take centuries for them to regenerate without help, he said.
Katz said previous environmental efforts funded via the company's partnership with the National Forest Foundation were focused nearly 100 percent on projects in the White River National Forest, around the resorts.
The money comes from voluntary guest donations at Vail-owned lodges, matched by funding from the Foundation.
Breckenridge and Keystone have both been working on forest management plans for several years as part of their ski area operation permits with the U.S. Forest Service. Neither the agency nor the resorts have released details of those plans publicly, so little is known about how the company will address forest health issues around the ski areas.
Katz said the company also took some flak when it first announced the wind power initiative.
Support for VR's plan came from Colorado Wild director Ryan Demmy Bidwell, who pointed out that the restoration work could also have a positive climate impact, since healthy forests gulp in great amounts of some greenhouse gases.
Bidwell said a careful look at the planned project could give an accurate apples-to-apples comparison between the forest health work and the renewable energy credit program.
Bidwell said he believes in the value of on-the-ground projects, "where you can measure the effectiveness of the work." It can be difficult to account for the positive impacts of programs like renewable energy credits, he said.
Aspen-based renewable energy expert Randy Udall said renewable energy credits can be a "near scam" that provide little in the way of true environmental value.
"I think that was true of the RECs that VR was buying, at least at the time," Udall said.
"They of course, have the option to buy wind power directly from Holy Cross, their electricity supplier (in Eagle County), and there are higher quality (if more expensive) RECs out there in that market, too," he concluded.
For more information, read Monday's Summit Daily story on the Hayman restoration effort at www.summitdaily.com.