11 Highly Impactful Sustainability Initiatives at Ski Resorts
Updated: Mar 11
COVID-19 was the culprit in shutting down ski resorts last season, but climate change remains an existential threat to winter. While Ullr woke up in February, the North American snowpack started the season well below average. As of February 10, resorts across the West experienced snowpacks that were ~20-40% below the historical average (calculated from 1981-2010 per USDA's National Water & Climate Center).
If you think low early season snowpacks have just been an anomaly, let's review some staggering facts:
From 1955 to 2016, the April snowpack in the western United States shrank by 90% according to a 2016 Environmental Protection Agency study
Warming winters in the northeastern United States are predicted to reduce forest area covered by snowpack by at least 49% by 2099 according to a study in Global Change Biology
The annual number of days with temperatures below freezing is expected to plummet by 2100 as winter temperatures rise in mountain towns. The chart below illustrates projected reductions in the number of days below freezing at selected resort areas.
Fortunately, resorts are taking action and have been committing to sustainable practices for decades. We’ve compiled a list of 11 highly impactful sustainability programs at resorts that are making a difference in our environment along with Vail Resort's EpicPromise.
Taos Ski Valley, NM. The first and only ski resort to receive B-Corp status.
Aspen Snowmass, CO. Coal methane capture produces power for local grid. Recently completed Give-A-Flake campaign to push for climate change and LGBTQ+ rights.
Park City Mountain Resort & Deer Valley Resort, UT. The solar farm will provide 100 percent of Park City Mountain’s electric usage by 2023.
Big Sky Resort, MT. 100% renewable electric energy powered as of 2021, part of The Forever Project.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, WY. Fully wind powered by a farm in eastern Idaho.
Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia. Donated land for the Fitzsimmons Renewable Energy Project, a non-intrusive hydroelectric plant that supplies power to the public.
Killington Ski Resort, VT. Cow and solar power — All lifts at Killington and Pico Mountain are powered by either cow manure or the sun.
Jiminy Peak, MA. First ski resort in the world with a wind turbine — named Zephyr.
Bridger Bowl Ski Area, MT. Installed a solar field on the mountain and partnered with Montana State University on a sustainable wastewater management pilot project.
Squaw Alpine, CA. Replaces single-use plastic water bottles with an affordable, reusable option
*Epic Promise, Vail Resorts. Vail Resorts’ plan to reduce emissions, waste, and environmental impact at its 37 resorts.
1. Taos Ski Valley, NM – Achieved B-Corp Status
The most comprehensive sustainability program of any ski resort globally
Taos was the first major ski resort to receive B Corporation (B Corp) certification for meeting the highest standards of social, economic and environmental commitment. Taos received its certification in 2017 and is one of ~3,500 certified B-Corps worldwide. Taos' motto is "ski the change" and highlights from the Taos’ Verde program include:
Uses waste oil from the resort's snow cats, snowmobiles, and trucks to heat its vehicle maintenance building
Conserves snow and reduces snow-making demand by employing snow farming to efficiently move snow from sunny aspects to shady, more highly trafficked areas
Installed a food waste dehydrator that converts food waste into soil amendment. Last year, the dehydrator converted 28,000 pounds of food into soil amendment.
Runs Carpool World, a carpooling website for skiers and operates a free employee shuttle
Donates used wine bottles to the Taos Earthship Institute so they can be used to build energy efficient houses
Member of the Rio Grande Water Fund, which is working to restore 600,000 acres of forests to historical, healthy tree densities in the Rio Grande River drainage.
2. Aspen Snowmass, CO – Powered by Coal Methane
Coal Methane, Give-a-Flake environmental & LGBTQ+ campaign
Carbon Reduction. In 2013, Aspen Snowmass partnered with Oxbow Mining, Vessels Carbon Solutions, Gunnison Energy, and Holy Cross Energy to capture methane from the Elk Creek Mine in nearby Somerset, CO. These partners' goal was to produce electricity from captured waste methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. The project generates 24-million kilowatt hours of electricity annually. The energy from this project is delivered to the utility grid, rather than to Aspen Snowmass directly. However, the total carbon reduction is equivalent to three times the resort's annual operations.
Give-A-Flake. From 2018-20, Aspen Snowmass ran the Give-A-Flake marketing campaign for environmental activism and LGBTQ+ rights. To advocate for the environment, Give-A-Flake leveraged social media, digital & print advertising and on-mountain kiosks to implore people to write to three Republican senators with swing votes on climate change: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and Rob Portman of Ohio. The campaign was helpful in raising awareness. For example, Murkowski responded to a Give-A-Flake ad in Outside Magazine and the spotlight will now be on her to support climate change initiatives under the Biden Administration.
Additionally, Give-A-Flake featured an online voter guide that divided political candidates into two categories: Gives-A-Flake and Doesn’t-Give-A-Flake. A Gives-A-Flake candidate was pro-LGBTQ+ rights and policy that addressed climate change and the latter, the opposite. This part of the campaign helped raise awareness by enabling supporters to add the signature flake to photos that they were then encouraged to post to social media.
3. Park City & Deer Valley, UT – Solar Power
The solar farm will provide 100% of these resorts' electric usage
Park City and Deer Valley are two of the six partners in the Elektron Solar Project. These two resorts have united with four partners, including the municipalities of Park City, Summit County and Salt Lake City, as well as Utah State University, to source power from an 80-megawatt solar farm in Tooele County, UT. D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments (DESRI) will build and operate the solar farm while Rocky Mountain Power will distribute the electricity. The solar farm will provide 100 percent of Park City Mountain’s and Deer Valley's electric usage. The project is on track to go live at the beginning of 2023.
4. BIG SKY, MT — THE FOREVER PROJECT
Net zero emissions by 2030 through renewable energy credits
Big Sky's chair lifts have run on carbon free energy since March of 2020 and since January 2021 all the resort's electrical usage is carbon free. This transition was the first step of the Forever Project, a transformative sustainability initiative run by Big Sky’s parent company, Boyne Resorts. As of January 1, 2021, Boyne Resorts began offsetting 100% of its energy consumption with renewable energy credits purchased from CMS Enterprises. The Forever Project’s main goal is to achieve net zero emissions at all Boyne-owned resorts by 2030. Additional key initiatives include using high-efficiency heating systems for its hotels, composting in Vista Hall, and Sno-How tracking technology for its snowcats to groom more efficiently.
Big Sky guests can also buy environmental offsets from Tradewater, a company that is removing greenhouse gas trapping refrigerants and coal methane from the atmosphere. For more information on Big Sky's sustainability initiatives visit bigskyresort.com/sustainability.
5. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, WY – Wind Power
Powered 100% by Locally Sourced Wind
Jackson Hole completed its transition to 100% wind energy in September 2019. Lower Valley Energy, the resort’s utility, sources the wind from Horse Butte Wind Farm in Bonneville, Idaho, about 80 miles west of the resort. Horse Butte Wind Farm has 32 wind turbines, four of which produce enough energy to power Jackson Hole annually.
Lower Valley Energy offers the 100% renewable option to all of its customers. Nearby Snow King Mountain Resort has also opted into Lower Valley’s program.
6. Whistler Blackcomb, BC – Hydroelectricity & Net Zero
Low-Impact Hydroelectricity Project & On Track for Net Zero Emissions
Plant Tour of the Micro-Hydro Plant at Fitzsimmons Creek
The Fitzsimmons Renewable Energy Project produces 33.5 gigawatt hours of power annually—enough to power Whistler Blackcomb's summer and winter operations or 3,000-4,000 houses. The power produced at Fitzsimmons is not used at the resort but goes into the local grid for public consumption. Whistler Blackcomb donated land along the Fitzsimmons Creek to Ledcor Group, for a micro-hydroelectricity plant that was completed in 2010.
As part of the Vail Resort network, Whistler is committed to having a zero net operating footprint by 2030 and is well on track to achieving that goal. As part of that goal, all of the restaurants at Whistler Blackcomb registered for TRUE Zero Waste Certification in 2020. This program diverts waste from landfills, incineration plants, and the environment. TRUE Zero Waste finds productive uses for waste, a process known as upcycling.
7. Alta Ski Area, UT – Alta Environmental Center (AEC)
Focused on land conversation and reducing Alta's carbon footprint
Alta Ski Area's Alta Environmental Center (AEC) was created in 2008 to guide the ski area's sustainability efforts and look after the natural environment in which the ski area operates. Through the AEC, Alta has reduced greenhouse gas emissions, implemented land conservation efforts, supported environmental research, and led monthly stewardship days that include clean-up, tree planting and trail work. Program highlights include:
Planting native trees to mitigate deforestation from historical mining operations and impacts from beetles and other insects.
Planting nearly 40,000 tree seedlings and 70,000 plant seedlings since 1991
Reclaiming 3,400 sq feet of wetlands to offset impacts to 1,244 sq feet of wetlands displaced during the construction of the Supreme lift in 2017
Installing 98 solar panels to offset 94 tons of carbon emissions over the 5 years since installation in 2015
During the winter season, AEC runs unique programs for guests to engage with and learn about the Alta's mountain environment:
Snowshoe with a Naturalist gives the non-skier a chance to explore Little Cottonwood Canyon and learn about its unique ecosystem. Led by a naturalist from Cottonwood Canyons Foundation, look for animal tracks and learn about the wildlife that left them
8. Killington Resort, VT – Cow and Solar Power
Cow manure powers the K-1 Gondola & Peak Lodge, Solar Does the Rest
Killington powers the K-1 Express Gondola and Peak Lodge with electricity made from cow manure. The manure-to-electricity program is called Cow Power and run by the resort’s utility, Green Mountain Power. Green Mountain Power sources the manure from thirteen farms around Vermont, consisting of 10,000 cows
To turn manure into electricity, the manure is mixed with water and pumped into a cement tank called an anaerobic digester, which is sealed from oxygen and heated to 100°F, the optimal temperature for bacteria in the manure to produce methane. After three weeks in the tank, the methane goes into a natural gas engine that produces electricity.
In the winter of 2017-8, Killington added solar to its renewable energy arsenal. The resort uses on-site and off-site solar arrays to produce/source 3.3 million kilowatts of electricity annually. Now, all Killington's lifts and its Peak Lodge as well as all the lifts at Pico Mountain are either powered by cows or the sun.
9. Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort, MA – Wind Power
First Ski Resort to Install a Wind Turbine to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Zephyr, a 253-foot tall wind turbine that produces 4,600,000 kilowatt-hours per year, stands near the summit of Jiminy Peak. Named after the Greek god of wind, this turbine has produced ~33% of the resort’s annual power ever since its installation in 2007. During the windier winters, Zephyr can produce nearly half of Jiminy Peak’s power.
Jiminy Peak is the first ski resort in the world to have its own wind turbine on the mountain. Berkshire East, another Massachusetts resort installed a turbine in 2010. Zephyr keeps 7,100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, 33,000 pounds of sulfur oxide and 10,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide out of the atmosphere annually.
10. Bridger Bowl Ski Area, MT – Wastewater Treatment
On mountain solar panels & wastewater tanks filled with plants
Solar Power: In 2019, Bridger Bowl partnered with local provider Onsite Energy to install solar panels at Deer Park Chalet, its mid-mountain lodge. The project consists of 160, 320-watt modules that produce 68,515 kilowatt hours annually, enough to fully support DPC's summer operations.
Wastewater Treatment: In 2012, Bridger Bowl partnered with the Montana Department of Civil Engineering on a pilot project to test the efficacy of artificial wetlands in wastewater treatment. The resort pumps wastewater through two underground trenches that are lined with rubber, then drainage pipes, then covered with gravel and sand in which sedges and rushes grow. Microbes in the sedge and rush roots break down ammonia, organic compounds, and other waste components. The wastewater is re-circulated until clean. Otto Stein, professor in Montana State University’s Department of Civil Engineering, who conceived the project, believes that if wetland wastewater treatment can work mid-mountain on Bridger Bowl, it can be effective in milder climates throughout Montana.
11. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, CA – Plastic Water Bottle Ban
Replaces single-use plastic water bottles with an affordable, reusable option
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows was the first resort in North America to ban the sale of single-use water bottles, instead offering refillable bottles at the same price point as a disposable bottle. The resort installed over 20 water refill stations across the mountains for guests to refill with mountain tap water. Since 2016, skiers and riders have helped remove 421,000 plastic bottles from the resort’s waste stream, amounting to about 240 per day. The refillable bottles, pictured above, have a slim, flexible design to fit easily in a jacket pocket for easy hydration on the slopes and have since become a widely popular alternative.
On the transportation side, the resort’s Protect Our Winters “POW” Carpool Program removes 25,000 cars off the road annually, preventing greenhouse gas emissions equal to 67,000 trips around Lake Tahoe, and a new app-based shuttle service takes another 20,000 cars off of access roads each year.
*Vail Resorts – The EpicPromise for zero impact
Targeting zero net emissions, zero waste & zero operating impact by 2030
The EpicPromise is the sustainability law of the land for Vail Resorts. Its major goals are zero net emissions, zero waste to landfills, and zero operating impact on land and ecosystems by 2030. According to the 2020 EpicPromise Progress Report, Vail Resorts committed to purchase 310,000 megawatt hours of electricity every year for the next twelve years from Plum Creek Wind in Wayne County, Nebraska. The 310,000 megawatt hours will offset 90% of Vail Resort’s North American power consumption. From April 2019 to March 2020, Vail Resorts diverted 50.6% of waste from landfill, up from 44.1% in FY 2019.
Feeling inspired? Want to learn more? Here are a few organizations leading the way on environmental issues:
Protect Our Winters: founded by professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones. Runs political campaigns advocating policies to mitigate climate change.
The Sierra Club: non-profit with all types of sustainable initiatives.
The Nature Conservancy: non-profit that focuses on land and wildlife conservation.
You can make a difference; participate and then insist that more be done. Carpool. Go birding on skis. Write your representatives. Make one turn and then another and another.
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