A Critical Look at the Climate Challenge

NSAA’s newest environmental initiative, The Climate Challenge, asks resorts to not just talk the environmental talk, but walk the walk, too. It offers a more objective-based approach to creating sustainable solutions in ski resort operations than Sustainable Slopes, NSAA’s first environmental initiative. That makes the program a bigger commitment. But is it enough?

Naturally, ski resorts have reason to think about their environmental impact specifically. Warmer temperatures due to increases in carbon emissions, much of them produced by human activity, could have direct implications to the winter resort industry. Sustainable Slopes was created in recognition of this.


At its launch in 2000, Sustainable Slopes was a positive first step toward environmental awareness in winter resort management. It encouraged, and cataloged, resort efforts in planning, design, construction, water use, waste management, and a host of other stewardship categories. The program was an acknowledgement that ski areas must manage their businesses in ways that demonstrate a commitment to environmental protection and stewardship, both for their own good and to meet the expectations of their customers.

However, while Sustainable Slopes encourages environmental action, it has no binding requirements. Many partnering resorts made steps to improve their sustainability (with over 300 participating in the program), but participating resorts could improve their green image without going beyond existing environmental laws and regulations.

In completing my graduate degree in environmental studies a few years ago, I analyzed the literature on the subject and conducted a Ski Resort Sustainability Survey that compared resorts based on their actions to meet the principles highlighted in Sustainable Slopes. The Survey, taken on a voluntarily basis by the resorts, was designed to evaluate the degree to which resorts resorts adopted the “options for getting there” as outlined in the program.

To quantify my data, I devised a point system to total up environmental actions. Each possible action was valued at one point. The survey yielded an average score of 30.54 out of a possible total of 38. The survey validated some resorts known for their successes, and exposed others (some of which had received NSAA’s Silver Eagle Award for Excellence in Energy Conservation/Clean Energy) who had done less. It also identified several trends across the industry.

Most importantly, with regard to green house gas emissions (GHG), 87 percent of the resorts surveyed had conducted an energy audit, but only 67 percent had completed energy management plans to address their energy goals and baseline energy use for resort operations. Considering these resorts are committing to sustainability in operations, this is a statistic that should be nearly 100 percent. Furthermore, only 77 percent of resorts surveyed had actually taken measures to improve resort operations related to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.


Today, in 2013, we are beyond the point of awareness—we need to increase action, and measure its success in cutting resort energy demands and carbon footprints.

That notion led to NSAA’s Climate Challenge in 2011. The program provides measurable and quantifiable results as ski areas inventory, target, reduce, and report their annual greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Challenge commits participating resorts to make significant strides in reducing GHG. In doing so, resorts are lowering their operating costs, and seeing a return on the investment.

SED wind turbine at Jiminy Peak Resort, Mass.
Resorts have been slow to sign on. In 2011, the inaugural year of the Climate Challenge, eight resorts (Alta, Arapahoe Basin, Canyons, Jackson Hole, Jiminy Peak, Mt. Hood Meadows, Park City Mountain Resort, and Telluride) joined the initiative. In 2012, another 10—five of them, like Park City, members of Powdr Corp.—came on board.

So far, many Challenge goals seem modest. One area aims for a mere three percent reduction in emissions by 2020. A few are more ambitious; Canyons has committed to a 15 percent reduction in GHG emissions by 2017. (Full details on participating resorts can be found in the Sustainable Slopes Annual Report 2012 at nsaa.org.)

Still, it’s a start. And stating a goal provides a useful yardstick. According to Maura Olivos, sustainability coordinator at Alta, “the Climate Challenge is the natural progression of the SSP.” Since 2009, Alta has been taking inventory of its GHG. “For Alta, the first year of the program was fairly easy, we already had a system for tracking our GHG. The greatest benefit was being a part of the standardization in reporting, and having a vested interest in the effort.”

Alta’s involvement demonstrates that with proper attention and detail, smaller resorts can mitigate GHG. “The reality is in how you choose your goal and report on it,” notes Olivos. “As we progress as participants it will become harder to find projects, but that’s what makes it a challenge.”

For its second season in the program, Alta is implementing programs regarding exterior lighting and conducting a heat inventory of its lift shacks. All of this will help the area reach its long-term goal of a 10 percent reduction in total emissions below 2011 levels by 2020.

Brent Giles, chief sustainability officer for Powdr Corp, agrees with the aim of walking the walk. “The climate challenge is a way to increase action and not awareness. Our aim was morally motivated from the beginning. We asked, ‘what can we do to be better stewards of the environment,’ since we [ski resorts) are responsible for huge parcels of land. Snow is water, and water is life.”

The NSAA hopes that the Climate Challenge will build upon already established national GHG inventory guidelines and allow for transparency in data collection and action plans. Participating resorts are given access to a custom Excel-based greenhouse gas inventory and reduction planning software, guidebooks, and on-call support from consultants, as well as training material to build support at the local level. Furthermore, participating resorts only need to pay an upfront cost of $2,000—little in comparison to the benefits received and positive publicity associated with the program.

Left: PCMR installed a vertical axis turbine that reduces noise and bird kill with a 12 KW rated peak output. The solar array has a 5.7 KW peak output. The expected generation is 15,000 to 20,000 kWh annually. Right: PCMR’s fountain/container fill station gives guests the opportunity to bring reusable water containers instead of purchasing plastic water containers. The station tracks the amount of water used and displays a current count of plastic bottles kept out of the waste stream.
Alta and Powdr Corp, among others, are already enumerating their investments. Park City has completed more than 30 carbon reduction and energy saving projects at a cost of more than $1.4 million since fiscal year 2005.

All 60 urinals at Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) in Utah are waterless. It’s estimated that one waterless urinal during high traffic times will save up to 40,000 gallons of water annually.
According to Olivos, even with resorts beginning at different levels in environmental programs, “if you look at the return on investment, it is immediate within a year, and we are receiving consulting and a tool to analyze operations that would cost exponentially more outside of the NSAA program.”


NSAA has done its part by finally creating an objective program through which resorts can make substantial changes to their environmental impact. It is now up to resorts to use it. “We need to take care of the environment that we are literally making a profit out of,” notes Olivos.

While the ski industry is small potatoes in the grand picture of climate change, what is important is that the Challenge’s objective measures lead to eventual policy change on a national level. As Aspen environmental guru Auden Schendler states in his book, Getting Green Done, “before businesses can effectively lobby for government action on climate, they need to have done something themselves, or they lose their credibility and appear to be hypocrites.”

As a skier addicted to powder, I’m looking forward to seeing more ski resorts partake in NSAA’s Climate Challenge—our snow depends on it.

Erme Catino is an original member of Meathead Films with a M.S. in Environmental Studies from Green Mountain College, Vt. His thesis was titled, “Ski Resort Sustainability: Evaluating environmental programs at ski resorts partnered with the NSAA Sustainable Slopes Program.”

Click Here To Order



i'm an avid, lifelong alpine skier, ex-patroller, yada, yada. however, until the NSAA changes their policy and begins opposing ski area terrain expansions, this "Climate Challenge" program is nothing but greenwashing. terrain expansions have tremendous negative impacts on forest health "far beyond the boundaries of the permit area" according to the epa. the epa also observes that terrain expansions have more negative impacts "than … all other forest impacts combined"! those national forest lands (as with all forests) are an essential component of climate health. the time has passed for "baby steps". agreed, the impact of ski areas on climate change is relatively small, but the ski industry is directly reliant on a healthy climate. they need to lead aggressively, not follow passively.

Carbon Dioxide / climate change

Wakeup! Carbon Dioxide does not cause global warming! The major factor in climate change is the reflection or absorbation of the energy from the sun. Dark surfaces absorb the suns energy and heat is created. Lite surfaces reflect the energy from the sun and heat is not created. Dark roofs on buildings and black asphalt roads all cause heat to be generated. Cities have higher temperatures than the surrounding country side because of this factor and also the heat created by the burning of fuel. One positive thing we can do is to plant trees. The trees use the energy from the sun and take the carbon from carbon dioxide and release the oxygen into the atmosphere.. The earths temperature is controlled by a number of factors. One of the most important factors is the amount of the earths surface covered by ice and snow. A decrease in this coverage decreseases energy reflection and increases energy absorption and heat. So if you want to be green plant trees and make the earth surfaces white.