Copper’s ski conservation summit fosters method sharing, brainstorming centered around sustainability on the slopes

Elaine Collins/Courtesy photo
Logan Antone, left, and Cooper Phillips take soil samples during Copper Mountain Resort's ski conservation summit on Wednesday, July 26 at Copper Mountain Resort.
Elaine Collins/Courtesy photo

On Wednesday, July 26, Copper Mountain Resort hosted sustainability officials, students and ski industry leaders for its summer ski conservation summit.

Last year at the summit, Copper Mountain announced the beginning of its 10-year carbon sequestration program that focuses on increasing the biodiversity on Copper’s slopes by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and holding it in liquid or solid form. In this case, it would be in the soil, where most of the world’s carbon is stored.

This year’s conservation summit continued to focus on the work Copper is doing to increase biodiversity on its slopes, but it also allowed other nearby ski resorts like Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Eldora Mountain and Sunlight Mountain Resort to share their insights on climate change and the preventive measures they are taking to curb its effects. Copper Mountain senior resort operations and sustainability manager Jeff Grasser talked a little about the goal of the summit.

“Starting a conversation within this industry — as well as others — about conserving the land,” said Grasser. “I see within our society, at Copper and our industry that we can do more to conserve the ecosystems that are businesses rely on.”

Grasser began the summit by highlighting how Copper has worked over the last few seasons to increase the biodiversity on the mountain in an ecologically smart way. 

One way that resort and other local officials have been working to increase the biodiversity over the last few seasons is by collecting native seeds and replanting them in areas that see wear and tear from winter and summer activities.

In 2022, Grasser and his sustainability team gathered seeds from 27 native species, replanting them in areas that were in need of advanced restoration in order to facilitate ecological succession, allowing a larger variety of plants to establish themselves on the mountain.

According to Grasser, local ski slopes tend to be stuck in a phase of primary succession, where the slope often looks barren with little more than a few plant species, because of constant recreation and disturbance. Copper’s native seed collection program is slowly changing the amount of slopes that are in a stage of primary succession by introducing its native seed mix to the area, sparking the beginning stages of advanced restoration.

Beyond the seed collection program, Grasser and Southwestern University’s Dr. Jennie DeMarco gave an update on the resort’s carbon sequestration program.

Over the first year of the program, Copper Mountain’s sustainability team and students from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, analyzed plant species compositions, soil health properties and carbon pools.

With the program now in its second year, Copper Mountain has made minor adjustments to the study by starting to experiment with a biochar — a lightweight black residue made of carbon and ashes from fallen or removed lodgepole pine and aspen trees.

The Copper Mountain team has been adding this biochar to sample plots that have been designated for the carbon sequestration study to see any effect it may have in developing a more diverse ecosystem.

“This year we added the addition of treatment,” Grasser said. “We have a control that just gets sampled, we have a second plot that gets seeded with our native biodiversity mix, a third plot that gets seed plus compost and now we are adding a fourth plot that is getting seeds plus biochar.”

In the next several years, the sustainability team and Southwestern University students will have comparative data from the sample plots, which will allow them to be able to make more informed decisions in their efforts to improve the long-term health of the ecosystems that make up the resort area. 

Outside of Copper Mountain, Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Eldora Mountain Resort and Sunlight Mountain Ski Resort have also put in energy, time and money in their own sustainability efforts. 

In recent years, A-Basin has focused on sustainability while also building out the ski area’s new mountain biking and hiking trails by re-sodding areas of the mountain and creating environmentally conscious mountain spring crossings.  

A-Basin and Eldora have also spent time restoring and conserving the wetlands that run through or near their ski areas. 

Through the excavation of gravel and the planting of seedlings and saplings, both A-Basin and Eldora have been able to create areas where water can pool, helping to restore wetland areas near both ski resorts.   

The hope for A-Basin and Eldora Mountain sustainability managers Mike Nathan and Hunter Wright is that these new wetland ecosystems will continue to grow and prosper in the coming seasons so the areas can once again house a diverse array of plants, insects and animal species.

A Sunlight representative concluded the day by explaining what the ski area has been doing to help revegetate high-use areas of the mountain located between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale.

According to Mica Selby, assistant general manager of human resources at Sunlight Mountain Resort, the ski area keeps a firm relationship with the U.S. Forest Service and draws up and adapts revegetation plans that can best serve the mountain.

With a small mountain sustainability team, Sunlight has successfully revegetated places on the mountain that were sparse due to high-volume use. In the future, the resort hopes to keep up with its revegetation efforts while also working towards better controlling erosion.  

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