Little Green Giants

It's not easy being green, especially when you're little. Search "sustainable" and "ski" on the Internet and you find a wide selection of celebratory articles on what the Aspens and Whistlers of the world are doing to green their operations, but not a lot about what it's like to be a small ski area pursuing an environmental agenda on a budget.

Small businesses face much different challenges than large ones, not the least of which are the much-slimmer margins that come with running a capital-intensive operation. The financial realities of a small area mean that big-money, environmentally friendly infrastructure upgrades are often out of the question. (One small-area general manager remarked, "If every winter were as good as this last one, we could do whatever we wanted. But they aren't.")

For small areas, going green has to be good for the environment and the bottom line at the same time. For many, the key is asking the question, "Can we do this more sustainably?" every time something new is discussed. It's an important starting point from which to discern alternative options to the status quo, simple payback periods or ROI, and environmental benefits.

But smaller areas can be green, too. Massanutten Resort in Virginia and Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe in Nevada have both had dedicated environmental agendas since the early 1990s. They are good examples of small areas integrating green initiatives into their businesses, pursuing the initiatives over the long term, and achieving great results along the way. They are ahead of an up-and-coming consumer trend: customers demanding tourism operations-especially outdoorsy ones-be environmentally conscious in their operations.


Mt. Rose, located in the competitive Tahoe ski market, has a wide-ranging and highly integrated approach to the environment-a program called Green Rose. The area is a big supporter of and participant in the NSAA Sustainable Slopes Environmental Charter and has used it to augment its comprehensive approach.

The resort's 2008 NSAA Green Room entry outlines the resort's program, listing goals and achievements for the year. Highlights include:

Water management: Nevada's desert environment means that judicious water consumption is an important environmental effort. At Rose, that means fairly standard steps, such as adopting water-efficient appliances and low-flow faucets and toilets, have a big impact here. Through these initiatives, the area saved 133,210 gallons of water in the 2007-08 winter season.

Energy: Mt Rose has focused on reducing energy use in its two main lodges by switching incandescent bulbs with CFLs, putting its lights on timers, and relying on its abundance of natural light (and passive solar heat) wherever possible. Low-e windows and high-quality insulation keep heating and cooling costs in line, and efficient hot water heaters further reduce energy use. The result? Approximately 42,350 kilowatt-hours saved last season.

Of course, a ski resort's main energy consumer is its snowmaking system. Recently, Mt. Rose updated to a new, high-efficiency Lenko airless system top-to-bottom. In addition, "The water storage for the snowmaking infrastructure is located mid-mountain; that creates a partial gravity feed water pressure system, reducing the amount of energy needed to pump water."

Waste management: Mt. Rose's aluminum, glass, plastic, and paper recycling program diverted 13.2 cubic yards of waste away from the landfill last season. Slightly less conventional is the food and beverage program's grease-reuse program-a local company recycles the grease into biodiesel.
Natural environment: The resort worked closely with the Forest Service to develop a new method of trail grading called "spot" grading. This involves using an excavator to re-contour irregularities and high and low spots on existing trails. This approach minimizes the area that traditional grading would disturb and helps to preserve more native vegetation.

Cliff Wilson, manager of Mt. Rose resort operations, says that all of these efforts have made sense from both an environmental and financial perspective. "We're committed to being good stewards of the land up here, but at the same time it makes good business sense to be green," he says. "One of the things we are most proud of is that we have full-time environmental staff. We have people with conservation and erosion-control backgrounds who work in other departments, but have that expertise. I'd definitely say that's one of the things we're most proud of-getting the employee and management's input into the whole environmental process."

His advice for other small areas looking to develop a comprehensive environmental program is, quite simply, to take it slow and steady. When you're a small area, he says, it can be pretty difficult to sink a lot of money into a full-fledged environmental overhaul. The best thing to do is to be patient and persevere.

"Be committed to incorporating these ideas, and a sustainable approach in everything that you do, from con­struction to maintenance to operating your lodges and your lifts," he advises. "Get a comprehensive plan figured out, stage by stage, and make sure that you are taking chunks out of it every step forward."


Massanutten is another smaller ski area with big sustainability goals. With just over 1,000 feet of vertical and 70 acres of skiable terrain, Massanutten is a bustling small area in proximity to several big cities. Like Mt. Rose, it has been working on an environmental agenda since the early '90s and participates in the Sustainable Slopes program. The main components of its program are efficient production strategies, alternative fuel use, and a big focus on recycling and waste management.

The recycling program diverted 20 percent of the resort's waste from the landfill in 2007, a slight increase from the year before. This is slightly below, but in line with, the state of Virginia's mandatory 25 percent diversion recycling rate for the state. A neat aspect of the recycling program is that some of the trash diverted is used by the nearby city of Harrisonburg to generate steam for heating and electric generation. Participation hasn't been a huge problem, says Merrick Kacer, assistant ski area manager, but getting everything that could be in the recycling bin in there still remains an elusive goal.

"Most people are more than happy to recycle," he says. "Participation is steady, but if 100 percent recycling is achieved, we would probably more than triple our recycling totals. The most challenging hurdle we have to overcome is the fact we have many people from different areas of the country, and recycling varies throughout the country. This leads to some products which are not recyclable entering our stream of product."

(This is a challenge not unique to Massanutten. Virginia may have a statewide recycling mandate, but other areas may not, and that has an impact on participation. Barbara Green, president of Blue Mountain, Pa., says that in her municipality, curbside recycling isn't available, and therefore people aren't exactly clamoring for it at their place of play. "It really isn't high on their list of things," says Green. "If we had one message all year from our 300,000 guests asking about the bins, that would be it. But we are still committed to doing it.")

Like any small area, the biggest impact on energy use and water management at Massanutten comes from the snowmaking system. Since the '90s, the resort has installed 48 SMI tower-mounted fan guns, 40 HKD low-e tower snow guns, rebuilt and re-nozzled the existing internal mix snow guns, and installed variable speed drives on the pumps. At this point, tower-mounted guns cover 75 percent of Massanutten's terrain; beyond the savings and efficiencies from that switch, Kacer says this has helped reduce grooming time by 40 percent and contributed to a significant decrease in fuel consumption and machine hours.

Other equipment-related initiatives at Massanutten include switching to B20 diesel fuel (diesel with 20 percent biodiesel content) for on and off-road vehicles, replacing the two-stroke snowmobile fleet with four-stroke machines, new grooming equipment that meets the EPA's Tier III emission standards, and a plan to implement onsite biodiesel production using waste oil from resort restaurants.

"The biggest perceived challenge was in making the commitment to implement eco-friendly practices into our guests' and employees' practices," says Kacer. "When we implemented the recycling program, we found that instead of feeling burdened by an extra chore, our guests and employees appreciated the effort. All in all, the most difficult aspect of implementing environmentally friendly programs is the initial shock factor that disrupts a person's routine. And nine times out of 10, the shock value is significantly lower than expected."


One of the most exciting smaller-area environmental initiatives in 2007 was the installation of a wind turbine at Jiminy Peak, Mass. (see "Tower of Power," SAM July 2008). As other small businesses wring their hands over soaring energy costs, Jiminy will be generating 33 percent of its annual electrical demands right on site, no non-renewable resources required. The turbine will help Jiminy stabilize its electricity costs and forecast a portion of those costs 25 years ahead. Now, as energy spikes higher, other areas are examining the option-and not just the bigger resorts, such as Aspen and Kirkwood.

Blue Mountain, Pa., is one. Facing the removal of state energy pricing caps by the end of 2009, Barbara Green has recently hired a consultant to investigate the possibility of wind power at Blue. It's a pretty critical situation for the area-estimates peg the energy price increases at anywhere from 30 to 100 percent.

Green has been creative in the process so far, something she recommends other small areas do in a similar situation. For example: when the consultant recommended a wind power feasibility study-the likes of which can cost a bundle-Green went to the local university and found a wind studies program with students willing to undertake the 12-month study as part of their curriculum, at no cost to the resort.

There are many good resources for small areas looking to green their operations. NSAA's Sustainable Slopes program is a good place to start; non-profit organizations can be helpful as well. The Canadian Centre for Pollution Prevention has a section on its website ( dedicated to sustainability at ski areas, including an extensive and helpful Best Practices Manual. It's a good resource, and it's free.

Energy costs are redefining ski area business models, and nowhere will that be felt more than at small ski areas. However, the general trend toward a more eco-minded consumer can't be ignored, either-a recent Travelocity poll found that 26 percent of respondents said they will be more environmentally conscious in their travel decisions in the coming year. At the Colorado Ski Country USA annual meeting, RRC Associates reported on a May 2008 survey in which 76 percent said environmental issues were important, and 25 percent said a resort's environmental record influenced their destination decision. Going green is no longer an option; it's what your customers expect.

Going green takes time, money and mostly, a lot of creativity. But if the small areas cited here can do it, so can you.
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