At the start of the ski season, Arapahoe Basin chief operating officer Alan Henceroth announced his ski area was moving away from purchasing renewable energy credits and instead had invested in retrofitting the existing base-area lighting system with energy-efficient bulbs.
It's a justifiable move to leaders in the field, one all of Summit County's resorts have taken in the recent past in favor of making on-the-ground operational changes to be more energy, water and waste conscious.
To Auden Schendler, though, "operational greening" isn't enough action for the ski industry, which he says is increasingly affected by climate change. The vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company argues the ski industry should create a voice that lobbies Washington, D.C. for legislation that protects its business.
Moving away from buying renewable energy credits - or RECs - isn't a big deal, Schendler said. Many factors drive the departure, from the apparent uselessness of RECs in spurring renewable development to resorts being pressed by the public to find a hands-on way of affecting the environment.
A renewable energy credit is a certificate that represents the environmental value - often less than one dollar - of one megawatt-hour of electricity, according to Schendler. Ski areas purchased RECs as an investment in renewable energy and often used them for marketing.
"At least part of the reason is growing public realization that RECs don't do anything," Schendler said. "More resorts, and more guests, I suspect, are starting to understand that spending a few bucks that have minimal impact and not walking the talk isn't the way to go. Also, there's something unseemly about a luxury resort oursourcing a solution to its own impact."
Arapahoe Basin made its initiatives visible with the lighting retrofit as well as continued recycling, composting and educational efforts. They also added an environmental coordinator position, which was filled about a month ago by Cassidy Callahan, a new graduate from northern New Hampshire who went to school in Vermont.
According to Arapahoe Basin spokeswoman Kimberly Trembearth, having a dedicated environmental position helps achieve the goal of "making A-Basin a sustainable place that takes our environment into consideration."
Callahan is charged with managing ongoing operational projects like recycling and composting, but she's also developing other projects and requesting the funding to make them happen.
For example, Arapahoe Basin may install a waste oil heater for the slope mechanics shop. It would create a mostly closed-loop system for the plethora of waste oil coming from snowcats and trucks instead of tapping into the propane heater currently in use. Callahan said she's also looking at adding trash and recycling receptacles to the parking area to help eliminate litter.
"The decision to move over to more home-based initiatives was made before I got here, but I was under the impression that it's more visual; you can see change a lot quicker," Callahan said. "It's closer to home, so it has more of an impact on Summit County."
According to Trembearth, the ski area decided its funds and efforts "would do more good in the form of local comprehensive projects."
"Our commitment to the environment and slowing climate change has not changed, but has focused to be able to make greater change here in our home and the home of many of our skiers," ski area documentation reads. "By no longer purchasing wind credits we have been able to allocate our finances to on-mountain projects and community ventures. This includes a complete lighting retrofit, being able to offer carpooling ticket discounts, and more financial assistance for the High Country Conservation Center. This shift in funds will give us many more opportunities in the future to be able to support local initiatives and improve sustainability here in Summit County."
Operational changes are more effective, anyway, Schendler said. They actually do reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2008, Vail Resorts ended its three-year renewable energy credit purchasing program and replaced it with a three-year, $750,000 and 1,500 volunteer-hour investment in the Hayman Restoration Project. At roughly the same time, Copper Mountain also began moving away from REC purchasing and touted operational greening instead.
The company also invests in community initiatives through the National Forest Foundation's Ski Conservation Fund. Vail Resorts raises up to $500,000 per year annually that's then granted to local nonprofits, like Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, to do conservation and restoration projects in the White River National Forest in Summit and Eagle counties.
Breckenridge and Keystone resorts have environmental managers in place to handle their key initiatives on the ground: composting, recycling and energy conservation.
"Over the last few years, company-wide, we've reduced electricity and natural gas consumption by 10 percent," said Beth Ganz, Vail Resorts' vice president of public affairs and sustainability.
When replacements are found for Breckenridge's Dave November and Keystone's Frank Papandrea, those replacements will continue work along a similar, successful trajectory, Ganz said. November left his post recently, while Papandrea opted to move to Lake Tahoe, where he's taking the newly created post of environmental manager at Heavenly.
"Environmental efficiencies are good for the environment and good for business," Ganz said, adding that Breckenridge's and Keystone's composting programs grew from 50 tons in their infancy to 200 tons, according to most recent data.
To Schendler, though, composting and recycling are yesterday's initiatives.
"It used to be that recycling was a 'green' program. It isn't anymore, it's how we dispose of waste. Same with operational greening. It's now business as usual. If you're not doing it, you're a bad businessperson. We build green buildings because they work better. We change light bulbs to save money," he said. "Climate change demands more of us, unfortunately."
Schendler, who is associated with advocacy groups like Protect Our Winters, wants ski areas to unite and put pressure on legislators for conservation legislation. To him, there's a limit to what ski areas can do on the ground. But as a business sector, they can effect change.
"The way for the ski industry to make a difference environmentally is to use its iconic status as a climate-dependent industry to demand action on global warming from Washington," he said. "This has only happened in a token way so far. It needs to become the No. 1 priority for trade groups."
Ganz disagrees, saying that though climate change is a "big issue facing the world," a ski area's best role is an educational one, by showing through doing.
"We have focused our efforts in charitable contributions through the National Forest Foundation and (Vail Resorts) Echo and operational changes that I think really move the needle on preserving and protecting our environment," she said. "We have not played a political role at this point. I think our commitment to educating both our employees and our guests about important measures, steps and ways people can live their lives in terms of conserving resources is really the most effective role we can play."