Clearing the Air on Sustainable Slopes

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November 2005


Is NSAA's Sustainable Slopes making a difference? Some say yes, some say no. And changes are on the way.
Five years into the NSAA's grand experiment in environmental stewardship known as Sustainable Slopes, the program has been lauded as a model of green ethics-and lambasted as a tool for green-washing that's desperately in need of change. The truth? It lies somewhere in between.

But change is in the air. NSAA is planning to revise Sustainable Slopes. NSAA's 2005 Sustainable Slopes Annual Report states that one of the goals for a five-year update of the program is to "recognize higher levels of performance while encouraging broad participation across the industry." (At present, 178 areas have signed the charter.) No changes had been voted on or implemented by NSAA's board as of press time, but the most significant proposed modification is adoption of a tiered approach to participation.

NSAA public policy director Geraldine Link says it's premature to detail changes that are still under consideration, but several sources confirmed to SAM that the tiered approach based on varying levels of environmental action will likely be approved. Sources say, for example, a resort would achieve gold-level status if it receives an environmental award two years running, meets LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards or obtains third-party certification of its environmental plan or claims.

Proponents believe the tiered approach will encourage greater environmental action. "People will say, 'it doesn't cost that much, and we're embarrassed not to be at a higher level,'" says Auden Schendler, environmental affairs director for Aspen Skiing Company. "That's a way to coerce people into being greener." NSAA prefers to characterize the plan as a way of "improving accountability and providing more incentives for improved environmental performance."

Accountability is a key goal. In a critical report published last year in Policy Studies Journal, the authors-two professors at the University of Colorado and George Washington University-cited lack of third-party oversight and lack of sanctions for non-compliance as two flaws of the original Sustainable Slopes charter. "Critics say [Sustainable Slopes] doesn't have any teeth, but now these tiers are going to have some separation, and I think it's going to encourage resorts," says Luke Cartin, environmental coordinator for Vail. "It's another type of certification or credential."

Cartin believes that the lack of third-party validation allows Sustainable Slopes to get a bum rap in some circles. "At least they [NSAA] have a program. How many industries out there have something along these lines? Across the board it's pretty aggressive of NSAA, and this is one of the things they should get a pat on the back for," he says.

Schendler, an early supporter but recent critic of Sustainable Slopes for what he perceives as its failure to evolve, agrees with the need for change and supports the tiered approach, but he thinks it should be ratcheted several notches higher.

For instance, above and beyond "gold" status or whatever label is used to denote the highest level of Sustainable Slopes participation, Schendler suggests an "ISO 14001 Club." Viewed as one of the most rigorous standards of certification and validation in the world, ISO 14001 is a system developed by the Swiss-based International Organization for Standardization, which develops business standards on issues of quality and environment. At present, such a club would have one member: the Aspen Skiing Company. Jackson Hole is also working toward ISO 14001 certification.

Further, if the industry is serious about addressing climate change in the face of shrinking snow packs-as NSAA's "Keep Winter Cool" program would seem to indicate-Schendler suggests a "1 percent," "2 percent," or "5 percent" club for resorts based on the amount of renewable energy they purchase to power overall operations.

"Those are two things that answer the question, 'How can you get the charter to drive change?' " Schendler says.

Whose Job Is It?
Many industry observers ask, is that even NSAA's job? They argue that putting the onus on a trade organization to enforce a voluntary charter is unfair. The real responsibility for environmental stewardship must rest with the individual resorts or resort companies.

The Sustainable Slopes charter itself acknowledges as much. It asks endorsing resorts to take serious stock of their environmental record in a number of areas, set goals, then use an assessment tool to evaluate performance each year.

Even the critics recognize the limits to NSAA's enforcement role. "The NSAA can't have any kind of heavy-duty enforcement, but they can certainly ask the industry to take a top-to-bottom look at everything they're doing and lower the environmental impacts within reasonable costs and without being fanatical, because it's the right thing to do," says Rocky Smith of Colorado Wild, whose offshoot Ski Area Citizens Coalition developed a controversial environmental report card highly critical of the industry's green record.

But even its friends say that Sustainable Slopes should evolve. "What Sustainable Slopes did was lay a framework and establish a foundation," says John Gitchell, owner and operator of Sustainable Business Solutions, an independent environmental consulting firm based in Eagle, Colo. "But it's just that, a foundation, and it requires each individual resort and resort company to really make a difference in those things. Just having done Sustainable Slopes is not enough.

"Sustainable Slopes was a great first step, but it needs some second and third steps now." says Gitchell, also the former corporate environmental manager for Vail Resorts. "Ski resorts have this great tool that identifies all of their environmental impacts, and they've got a great tool to use to do self-improvements, to manage those impact areas and really make a difference," Gitchell says.

Gitchell would like to see NSAA reach out to environmental organizations for independent verification of claims made by charter-endorsing resorts using the self-reporting tool. That kind of collaboration, he says, can work at an international level (ISO 14001), nationally, or in partnership with local community groups. With community groups especially, this process often opens up a broader environmental dialogue between resorts and their communities, Gitchell says. And that's a good thing.

The Great Equalizer
Vail's Cartin sees Sustainable Slopes as the great leveler, because it allows a small Midwestern resort with limited resources to make the same environmental commitment as a big Western ski area with far deeper pockets, although obviously on a much smaller scale.

"I always viewed Sustainable Slopes as a very good program because all ski areas of all sizes can get involved, from us big guys down to a ski area 500 acres or less," Cartin says. "I think the larger resorts should be held to a higher standard; they have larger impacts."

While bigger-budget mountains may be able to dedicate a staff position to environmental affairs, that's not essential, says Gitchell-or even beneficial. A dedicated environmental point person often "gets saddled with all of these environmental tasks and it's like, 'We've separated that out and that person does that,' and it never really gets integrated," he says. Without a dedicated manager, an area can build a resort-wide environmental ethic based on a team approach. "A team approach is a lot more effective," he adds.

What is critical at every ski area, Gitchell says, is that someone in a leadership position has a passion for the environment and allows that ethic to trickle down throughout the company and all of its departments. He emphasizes that environmental best practices often equate to bottom-line savings that can even be sold to stockholders. "I don't think [being a publicly traded company] is really a factor," Gitchell says. "Strong environmental practices and leadership are a cost savings."

Taking Action
Establishing green credentials starts with an Environmental Management System, Gitchell says. An EMS is a four-part process of establishing environmental priorities, documenting those priorities in an environmental policy, taking actions to support that policy, and-perhaps most critically-communicating back to stakeholders.

"It's really powerful when ski resorts, or any business, state their intentions, take actions on those intentions and communicate well about those actions in a proactive, positive, straightforward way, so that their communities begin to support and even follow their actions," Gitchell says.

Aspen's Schendler takes it a step further, saying ski companies should reach out to local environmental groups the way Aspen Skiing Company CEO Pat O'Donnell did with his quarterly lunch meetings at the famed Little Nell hotel. "In what other industry do members of the environmental community have a direct line to the CEO of the company and can hear about projects before they even happen?" Schendler asks. Those meetings morphed into Aspen's Community Environmental Advisory Committee and continue to this day.

The Bottom Line
In practical terms, Schendler says an industry that's so heavily vested in maintaining scenic beauty and so dependent on cold temperatures can't afford to do the minimum on environmental issues. And he says even the most rudimentary actions can result in significant ROI (return on investment). Buying and generating renewable energy are costly, he notes, but they can be cancelled out on the bottom line by dramatically improving energy efficiency through lighting retrofits, green building and other less-sexy actions. For instance, lighting retrofits such as changing out a 400-watt fixture in the garage to an energy-efficient 32-watt fixture typically result in a 50 percent ROI immediately.

Green building can take a bit longer to recoup, but should pay off in utility savings within 10 years. That's a long-term commitment, but beyond ROI the payoff in terms of reduced carbon dioxide emissions is substantial-and ultimately, the real goal. All of Aspen's environmental practices, including a mini-hydro power-generating system using its snowmaking equipment in the off-season, are enacted under the umbrella of slowing global climate change. Vail, Cartin says, continues down the renewable energy path with its pursuit of Forest Service approval for four wind- powered turbines atop the mountain.

Those headline-grabbing actions have obvious marketing value, Cartin says, but it's the more mundane things that make the most difference, such as an effort at the resort this season to increase its recycling diversion rate from 47 percent to 50 percent.

And that message, that it's often the little things that garner the greatest results, is one of the best byproducts of the Sustainable Slopes programs, says Gitchell. "Any time you can get people to talk about the environment and things they're doing for the environment it's a positive thing," he says. "It's great when companies start to say, 'We recycled this many tons or we saved this much energy.' It's very positive when environment is a topic, and that's what Sustainable Slopes has done-created this forum for discussion." Ultimately, however, it's up to individual resorts.
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