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Insights: Colorado ski industry poised to be heard about climate change

Author: Joey Bunch - December 4, 2017 - Updated: December 4, 2017

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A skier gains big air during the super pipe competition at Aspen’s X-Games. (Matt Inden Miles, Colorado.com)

When outsiders think of Colorado, most don’t think of cows. They don’t think of aerospace, energy, Palisade peaches or Olathe sweet corn. To those drawn to our wide-open spaces, all the pieces of Colorado are overshadowed by evergreen mountains draped in snow.

The Rocky Mountain way runs through the high country. Everything else follows.

With that presence comes power, and Aspen Skiing Co. gets that. That’s why the long-green icon of winter recreation for the jet set  is leveraging its slopes, its lobbyists and its lawyers — shoot, even the power of the CEO’s pen — to take on climate change far beyond the borders of Pitkin County.

The tony resort’s green buildings, its small hydroelectric dam, efficient light bulbs, a $1.1 million solar panel farm, even capturing methane from a leaky old coal mine to generate power weren’t enough to put even a tiny dent in the global problem. The company’s fathers turned to courage and commitment.

“We did all these things corporations do to reduce the carbon footprint, but we realized that none of that affects the larger climate problem,” said Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of sustainability. “Even if the whole ski industry did this, it would not solve the climate problem.”

That’s where Aspen Skiing Co. broke free from other big companies that, yes, might think globally but then act only locally. The company lobbied for environmental policies in Washington, dispatched lawyers to file briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and dispatched its leaders and experts to testify before Congress.

President and CEO Mike Kaplan wrote letters, including an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, to call out President Trump over the damage climate change policy and immigration policy could do to the ski and resort industry.

That’s risky business, given the bank accounts of people who live in and visit Aspen. Kaplan ran the risk of offending his more conservative patrons.

It helps to have the backing of a privately held company owned by the Crown family of Chicago. The Crowns were an early political supporter of fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama.

Such locally grown courage-meets-skepticism is as common to Aspen, however, as high-priced drinks and ’70s celebrities.

When former CEO Pat O’Donnell took charge of the Aspen and Snowmass properties in 1996, he said the company could do better to cut the impacts of tourism on the lush environment that attracted visitors in the first place. The naturally suspicious left smelled astro-turf public relations. The next year he brought on Chris Lane, an environmental engineer who previously worked for the Sierra Club.

Lane created an environmental fund. The company matches employee contributions, and then employees determine how the money gets spent locally.

The fund celebrated two decades of handing out grants outside the resort. This year, for instance, the Environment Foundation gave a $20,000 grant to the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s River Center to teach kids, locals and tourists about clean water, riparian habitats and the local economy. Aspen Skiing liked it so much, the company tossed in a $30,000 match.

The fund also was the seed corn of a much larger commitment that has evolved. Lane has been the CEO of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies since 2012. Schendler, his deputy, took over.

“The truth is we think there’s a business upside to it, not a downside,” Schendler said. “We don’t think there’s a risk anymore to taking a position on climate, in the same sense that in 1970 there was a risk for taking a position on civil rights. This ship has sailed; it’s obvious we need to move on this.”

To most people, climate change is an abstract concept, some other person’s problem. In Aspen, which has 30 more frost-free days than it did in 1980, the issue is as visceral as dry hills in December.

Competitor Vail Resorts isn’t sitting idly by, either. The company that owns 10 resorts and 13 ski areas — including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone — has a plan to have zero environmental impact on nearby forests, landfills and in air emissions by 2030.

Formerly Vail Associates, the company went public in 1997, the same year its Aspen neighbors were starting an environmental battle plan.

The roots of Aspen activism could logically grow, at least across U.S. slopes.

In July, the Crown family and Denver’s KSL Capital Partners closed a $1.5 billion deal to forge Aspen and Snowmass with Winter Park and Steamboat, along with Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, KSL, Intrawest and Mammoth Resorts into one company with 12 mountain resorts and 6 million annual skier visits to 20,000 skiable acres.

But combining ledgers can happen a lot faster than combining environmental philosophies, Schendler said.

“But what we have done is we gave this new company one of our top guys,” he said, referring to David Perry, who was chief operating officer of Aspen Skiing Co. and now is the president and COO of the larger but separate organization.

“I think you can expect him to bring that environmental DNA to that organization, so regardless of whether we have any control, I think that organization is going to stat to look a lot like us.”

Conservation Colorado, the state’s largest environmental group, hopes a lot of slopes and board rooms start to look like Aspen when it comes to thinking globally.

“Not only do they have trusted brands and platforms that can reach broad audiences, but they are built on public lands and their very existence is threatened by climate change,” Conservation Colorado executive director Jessica Goad told me. “That’s why ski resorts including Vail, Aspen, and Copper Mountain have said that they are still in on meeting the goals Paris climate agreement. More outdoor companies, not just ski resorts, should be joining this fight.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.