Patrols, like Arapahoe Basin, take a leadership role
By Lindsay DeFrates
Photos courtesy of Arapahoe Basin
The morning meeting runs smoothly. Tony Cammarata, the operations director/ski patrol director at Arapahoe Basin for the last 10 years, runs through the daily assignments of duties. He then covers the pass-on topics like first aid and safety discussions. The content, the commentary, and the heavily caffeinated audience are much like every other patrol meeting happening that January morning across the country.
There are, perhaps, a few differences. Behind him, for example, a large TV screen displays the information about updates from their physician advisor with a classic PowerPoint presentation, and instead of a clipboard, Cammarata holds a tablet. In fact, among the on-duty members of this 60-person patrol, there is not a single piece of paper in the room. In the next room, there are also containers for both recycling and compost that many patrollers bring to the mountain from housing that does not include these options for waste disposal.
Once the morning meeting is completed, the patrollers file out into the wind, the rising sun, and the glittering hoarfrost. Behind them, the lights in patrol HQ turn off automatically, while the thermostat and humidity control do their best to balance out the damp funkiness left behind by a bunch of patrollers.
Cammarata checks in with mountain operations and then sits back down at his desk to work on ordering some new tower pad covers from a local provider.
The building above the patrol offices and locker rooms, including the Kids Center, is entirely off the grid, powered by a 14-kilowatt solar panel array and geothermal energy.
Wherever one chooses to look at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in Keystone, Colorado, or at any of hundreds of other mountains around the country, evidence of the ski industry’s commitment to sustainability is everywhere. From the carpooling to the solar panels, from the roadless construction of new lift lines to the proud membership in Protect Our Winters (POW), from the first-year patroller to the mountain operations director, changing the course of climate change and prioritizing the health of their mountain ecosystem is woven into their everyday routine.
For many, it is the sum of the details. Compost and recycling in the locker room. Boot warmers on a timer. Thermostats and humidity control in every station. A paperless patrol HQ.
For others, it is the symbol of a national movement, the letters “POW” embroidered on a red and black uniform with a neatly restitched seam.
The (Carbon) Cost of Business
Arapahoe Basin is not unique in its interest in creating sustainable on-mountain operations and combating climate change at the global level. Hundreds of ski resorts across the country have, in the last decade, sought out ways to minimize or eliminate their carbon emissions, whether through onsite renewable energy or the purchase of carbon offsets. Snowmaking has seen an impressive switch to more efficient technology and more conservative water use. Even building amenities like toilets, lightbulbs, and kitchen waste have been reassessed with sustainability in mind. In fact, it is difficult to find a single mountain that does not list these types of changes they have made recently.
The motivation behind this urgent shift to a more sustainable outdoor industry comes from the recognition that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change in the form of shorter winters, higher snowlines, and more prolonged wildfire seasons. In the West, the mega-drought of the Colorado River drainage continues, and invasive species threaten native plants and animals.
Yet, the relationship between the ski industry and climate change is complex and leads to some apparent contradictions. For one, ski mountains have everything to lose as winters become warmer and moisture unpredictable. On the other side, however, travel to mountains, the local impact on water sources, massive base village developments, and even the carbon footprint of new and better gear every year continue to rack up a carbon footprint that is undeniably massive.
In 2018, for example, 12 editors and staff at Outside Magazine decided to tally up their carbon footprint from one ski season and came to the hefty number of 32,508 pounds of carbon emissions. Between flying and driving to ski mountains, and the associated gear purchases, just 12 relatively eco-conscious people left behind 16 tons of carbon emissions.
In context for global carbon emissions, during the 2018-19 season the Rocky Mountain Region ski resorts alone saw upward of 59 million visitors.
Another significant environmental impact of ski mountain operations is the use of snow guns and artificial snow. As the snowlines in all major mountain ranges creep upward, snowmaking becomes an essential part of opening the mountain every year, especially on the East Coast and in the Alps. Yet even areas renowned for excellent snow, like the Colorado Rockies, face all-too-bare slopes as opening day approaches. On the four mountains of Aspen, for example, Aspen Skiing Co. (SkiCo) estimates that it uses about 903-acre feet of water for snowmaking operations every season. It is easy to say that the water is replaced directly into the drainage but dumping water from the bottom of the drainage back up into the fragile alpine ecosystem has negative effects on the biodiversity of that area. Packed snow melts more slowly, preventing alpine grasses and wildflowers from taking full advantage of their already short growing season.
Add to that the impacts that night operations have on wildlife migration, mating, and survival during the high stress of winter and anyone with an eco-conscious bone in their body begins to think twice about strapping on their sticks for the season.
Change needs to happen, fast.
According to a 2018 study by the United Nations, in order to prevent the devastation of climate change of more than 2 degrees Celsius, the developed world must reach net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century, and every year sooner can save lives and economies. Without immediate action, the effects, even in the least extreme models, would devastate the existence of the ski industry and wreak havoc on world economies, low-lying countries, and ecosystems across the globe.
Comprehensive On-Mountain Model (A-Basin)
With one of the most aggressive, comprehensive, and inclusive on-mountain sustainability plans in the nation, A-Basin is a great study of everything to get right. Their organized move toward sustainability began in 2018, after people like Cammarata and others had been individually championing initiatives without holistic support. After working with the Brendle Group (an environmental consultant group), and surveying their employees, they set the ambitious goal of seven initiatives to accomplish in seven years:
- 75% Waste Diversion
- No net increase in Water Consumption
- Lead in Ecosystem Stewardship and Wildlife Management
- 100% Renewable Electricity
- Increase in Carpool and Public Transportation Options
- Centralize Purchasing
- Carbon Neutral by 2025.
This mindset, one of urgent motivation, is where people like Cammarata come in. Having worked on the slopes of Arapahoe Basin since the mid-90s, and now in the role of operations director functioning as ski patrol director, he has seen the need for changes, major changes, to business as usual if the business of ski patrol is going to survive the next few decades.
Each department at A-Basin, including lift ops, ski school, food service, and ski patrol, has been charged with creating a unique departmental plan that outlines how that job function can support the goals of the whole mountain. Cammarata is proud to say that he completed his first. “First we went for energy conservation. Automatic lights, heating, and humidity control were added to every patrol station and the locker rooms. We dress for a cold climate, so the temperatures inside should reflect that.”
Boot warmers were set to timers, so instead of blasting air all night and day, they were rigged to be most efficient. Then they remodeled the patrol headquarters.
“The changes that were made not only helped us with sustainability goals, but made for an environment that allowed patrol employees to see that we were taking care of them, giving them a comfortable, well-designed place where their uniforms and tools and everything they need for the job was deemed important. Not ‘the patrollers could do without this’ mindset, it was done really well with multiple goals in mind.”
Along with the building renovations, tablets and workstations took over the daily use of paper for incident reports, duty assignments, and department communications. Cammarata explains the reason for prioritizing paperless is more than just eliminating waste. “Because of the uniform, and the visibility, patrol is looked to as leadership on the mountain by visitors and staff. By modeling sustainability in even small ways, we are starting those conversations that lead to a shift in culture.”
Carpooling is another way in which the patrollers of A-Basin seem to be ahead of the curve. “The bus is usually too late for the morning meeting, so patrollers have gotten very, very good at riding with each other to cut down on parking woes and emissions. We encourage them to bring compost and recycling to the mountain if their housing situation doesn’t allow for it as well.”
Also conscious of the impact they have on their local ecosystem, A-Basin’s 2017 expansion into the Beavers and Steep Gullies, including a dedicated lift, was a roadless construction, leaving as little a footprint as possible. All supplies and workers came in either on foot or via helicopter.
Arapahoe Basin is not alone in its sustainability endeavors, especially not in Colorado, or even Summit County. Copper Mountain has invested in high-efficiency snowmaking equipment and has plans to dramatically increase their 20% renewable energy mark. Aspen and Snowmass continue to implement further renewable energy initiatives by offsetting through windpower and even harnessing the methane emissions of an old mine shaft to support SkiCo’s operations. Even the expansive Vail Resorts has pledged to reach a zero-net operating footprint by 2030, a massive undertaking affecting the operations of their many holdings.
That’s One Way to Do It (Unique Local Initiatives)
While some of the mega-resorts and high-profile names of skiing in the West get a lot of the headlines, mountain communities and operations across the country are working in different ways to reduce their impact day to day. In addition to many environmentally friendly changes such as low-flow or composting toilets, compact fluorescent bulbs, and better water storage and usage for snowmaking and on-mountain operations, a few slopes are employing unique approaches to on-mountain sustainability.
Built in 2007, Jiminy Peak’s wind turbine really stands out. Nicknamed “Zephyr,” Paul Maloney (VP and patrol director) says, “You can’t miss it.” Jiminy Peak is in Massachusetts, where snowmaking and night-skiing operations put a heavy toll on the electrical grid. Zephyr provides about one-third of the electrical needs during full winter operations and puts energy back onto the grid during the slower season. Jiminy Peak won the Golden Eagle Award by Clif Bar and the National Ski Areas Association Overall Environmental Excellence in 2008 for the construction of the on-mountain wind turbine and now sources its energy from 100% renewable resources.
For more than 10 years, Wolf Creek Ski Area in Colorado has used 100% biodegradable oil made from grape seeds in all its heavy machinery. The oil breaks down into a completely biodegradable substance in less than four weeks. The mountain is also known for its dedication to water quality, contracting with an outside auditing group to assess stream health for all water sources that pass through the mountain.
SkiCo recently partnered with local energy companies to capture methane that was venting from a coal mine in nearby Somerset County. The 3 megawatts of energy captured every year are more than the company uses in a season. The methane captured prevents it from seeping into the atmosphere, where it works as a potent greenhouse gas.
According to Dirk Anderson (environmental education and stewardship coordinator), Bogus Basin in Idaho has been offsetting 100% of their carbon footprint for years but wanted to do more locally. To cut down on the impact of visitor and employee car trips, they established priority carpool parking on weekends and holidays, designating the main lot as carpool parking only (three or more people). Bogus also partnered with Ada County Highway District commuter ride van program and provides employee transportation in 15-passenger vans. They even have a dedicated Rideshare app.
Advocacy and National Movements
Despite all the innovative, boots-on-the-ground solutions, the thousands of kilowatts saved or acre feet of water left in the streambeds, many advocates agree that simply reducing the impact of individual mountains is not enough.
SkiCo Sustainability Coordinator Auden Schindler explains, “These are admirable measures, but they aren’t climate solutions, because climate is a global problem, at a huge scale. The fix is political. It comes through movements, political pressure, elections, activism.”
An outspoken advocate for the role that large corporations should take in lobbying Washington for climate change policy, Schendler published his book Getting Green Done in 2009 as a look into what it means to make a real difference in the urgent crisis that is climate change. The answer in Schendler’s mind, and for all those who know how the game is played, is that real change, change that makes measurable difference, can only happen in Washington. National climate policy, energy agreements, and regulations are needed to sustain the growth and make the massive cuts to carbon emissions necessary to make real change.
With this in mind, Protect Our Winters, or POW, was established in 2007 by members of the outdoor industry who saw the need for immediate, organized, and effective change in both policy and culture. POW believes that the outdoor enthusiasts and corporations who rely on the health of the environment need to start throwing their considerable weight around with a little more intentionality. With the outdoor industry netting an impressive $887 billion in 2018, and with the ski industry making up a significant percent of that, mountains lobbying at the national level only makes sense. POW’s model provides high-profile athletes and company CEOs a platform and system to directly contact the national leaders in charge of climate legislation. They partner with big-name outdoor brands to share their logo and mission statement (hence the embroidered uniform of the A-Basin patrollers) to help the millions of outdoor enthusiasts begin to see themselves as essential advocates for the health of the planet.
In years past, POW has brought many of these voices, both athletes and CEOs, to the very steps of Congress to leverage what they refer to as a “razor thin margin” in order to create change with just a few strategic votes. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, however, this year POW hosted a digital Lobby Camp, helping former dirtbags learn what to say and who to speak to from the comfort of their own home. They offered training aimed at giving anyone who had the ability to pick up the phone the power to communicate effectively with the groups that make real change.
Also at the national level, the National Ski Area Association issues its annual Climate Challenge, and to date the participating resorts have reduced 85,000 tons of carbon emissions and purchased over 230,000 carbon dioxide equivalents in renewable energy credits. As a nationwide organization, the NSAA provides structure and accountability, along with consulting and press opportunities to incentivize this progress. NSAA states:
Climate change presents challenges to the ski industry that require proactive planning, action, and bold leadership. The Climate Challenge provides a framework for participants to engage in a multiyear process that enables them to plan and implement actions that will reduce emissions, share those successes industry wide, and collaborate with others in the industry to leverage the collective power of working together on climate issues.
While over the summer many resorts are struggling to come up with a healthy reopening plan due to the ongoing pandemic, experts are urging them not to lose sight of sustainability goals. Cammarata says it best: “We’ve set sustainability goals to be accomplished in 2025, with 2030 as a long-term goal. That’s not far off, and we have a long way to go. We’ve had to change the business model, but the goals haven’t. They can’t. When this pandemic is over, we don’t want to find ourselves two years behind in sustainability. We can’t afford to lose that much time.”
The Patrol Role
On the snow and in the community, many ski patrollers are seen as leaders. Perhaps it’s the identifiable uniform, with its reassurance of aid, or the often outspoken nature of individuals who pursue passions like this one, but either way, mountain communities and visitors can spot a patroller a mile away. When it comes to sustainability, stepping into that leadership role is crucial.
It does not have to be the same everywhere, though, and patrollers can make a significant difference in the way their community views and values sustainability either on the mountain day to day, at a national level, or both. For example, Schendler suggests organizing at the national level, saying, “Ski patrollers can unite and support resort leadership that is getting political or demand or pressure leadership to act in political ways. On their own, of course, they can also act; it would be powerful if, say, ski patrol trade groups made a statement in support of the need for national climate policy.”
Cammarata, on the other hand, sees the value of the “30,000-foot view” but also recognizes the power of single interactions with tourists and other mountain employees. He says, “Advocacy groups help us stay educated and remind us why it’s important for our business to partner with them, but I do think that boots on the ground are still important to create a culture [of sustainability]. I always find that recognition of where we can contribute needs to begin with ‘We can do this better,’ even if we just stop idling the snowmobile. I want my staff to be promoters because patrollers are seen as leaders, and when other people see us going out of our way to contribute [to environmental sustainability], it helps develop a culture, and once you ha