Increasingly, ski resorts are taking sustainability and their impact on the environment seriously. While sustainability hasn’t historically been a focus of ski resorts, industry organizations like the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) have been working to move the needle. “Sustainability success is not a zero sum game; if we do nothing, we all lose,” says Adrienne Saia Isaac, marketing and communications director of the NSAA. “That’s why it’s critical that each ski area identifies its own climate risks and paths to action, and that we move forward with a strong, united voice for climate action.”
NSAA’s Sustainable Slopes
The trend toward ski resorts attempting – and succeeding – to incorporate sustainability practices into their ski operations began to take hold when NSAA created a program called Sustainable Slopes in 2000. The program, updated in 2020, is a framework for ski area sustainability, allowing ski areas to identify their key action items, get ideas on how to improve their operational efficiency and get started on advocating for climate action. More than 200 ski areas have endorsed Sustainable Slopes.
NSAA also developed its Climate Challenge to help ski areas inventory, target and reduce their GHG emissions. Some 55 ski areas have taken the challenge, which includes mandatory annual emissions reduction projects and advocacy work. “Most importantly,” Isaac says, “these ski areas are leaders in reducing our industry’s relatively small footprint, while also encouraging community partnerships and legislative and regulatory action to help mitigate the impacts of a changing climate.”
The pledge many ski resorts now take through the Sustainable Slopes program calls on them to incorporate not only sustainability in all that they do, but to lead by example and educate employees and guests about sustainability, place collaboration over competition and advocate for climate protection. The environmental effort is not just evident in the U.S., but throughout North America. Ski Canada is a member of the National Ski Areas Association and supports their Sustainable Slopes environmental initiative for ski areas, too.
“When skiers and riders visit their favorite mountain, few understand the efforts exerted behind the scenes to deliver exceptional experiences,” said Kelly Pawlak, NSAA President and CEO when presenting last year’s awards. “Ski areas work year-round to improve operations and build their brand and community, with an eye on the future.”
Sustainability efforts at North America ski resorts
While there’s still much work to be done, and much of the work happens behind the scenes, ski resorts throughout North America are working toward making their resorts more sustainable. Below, we’ve shared a few examples of this. While this doesn’t represent an exhaustive list, it gives a little insight about sustainability efforts at ski resorts around North America.
Vail Resorts is aiming high with their goal to reach net zero emissions across all 37 of their North American-owned resorts by 2030. Additional commitments by Vail Resorts include: Zero waste to landfills by 2030 and zero operating impact on forests and habitat. As the 2022/23 ski season kicked off, Vail Resorts announced that they’re on track to achieve zero net operating footprint by 2030, and that they’d met their 100% renewable electricity goal.
Alta Ski Resort, Utah
Alta Ski Resort is among the resorts that the NSAA has recognized, with Alta receiving the NSAA Golden Eagle Award for Overall Excellence in 2022. The efforts are incorporated in the Alta Environmental Center where they identified some of their largest emission-producing processes and committed to purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs) worth an amount that matches 100 percent of the ski area’s electricity use. In addition, Alta partnered with its neighbor, Snowbird, where they sent food waste to a digester to create biomethane (a renewable natural gas). Together, they diverted more than 41,000 pounds of food waste from the landfill.
Park City, Utah
Recently, we highlighted some of the sustainability efforts throughout the town of Park City. And those efforts continue to the mountain, too. Park City Mountain (a Vail Resorts property), Deer Valley and Woodward are all taking sustainability seriously, and working closely with the town of Park City to meet sustainability goals. Deer Valley and Park City Mountain are moving toward using solar to provide 100 percent of their resorts’ energy this year, while Woodward’s sustainability commitment includes on-site solar panels that produce up to 300,000-kilowatt hours of clean energy per year to power its campus.
Powder Mountain, Utah
According to Powder Mountain Resort’s website, everything they do is “centered around making minimal environmental impact.” This includes retaining 80% of their Weber County land as open space for residents and visitors, eliminating plastic bottles, using only fresh powder, and doing minimal grooming. Additionally, to help offset their impact, they’ve planted 5,000 trees and taken part in reforestation efforts.
Jiminy Peak, Massachusetts
Jiminy, a small self-contained gem of a ski resort in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, long has set standards that the biggest of resorts admire. The father-son duo of Brian and Tyler Fairbank – the Fairbank Group – also operates Cranmore in New Hampshire and Bromley Mountain in Vermont in the same manner. Jiminy’s sustainability work dates back years. In 2008 it won the overall Golden Eagle Award for building the Zephyr, a 1.5MW wind turbine, which today provides approximately 66 percent of Jiminy Peak’s electrical demands. Jiminy’s sister resort, Cranmore, is working to install LED lighting resort-wide to reduce annual kWh useage, while Bromley has installed 1,632 solar panels across the street from its slopes.
Wild Mountain, Minnesota
Wild Mountain, a smaller ski resort in the Midwest, sits in Taylor Falls where the St. Croix River separates Minnesota and Wisconsin. Wild Mountain has achieved Carbon Neutral certification from Carbon Protection Partners, who worked with the ski area to calculate and offset the property’s unavoidable emissions. They also eliminated more than 500,000 pieces of single-use plastic from their waste stream.
Stratton Mountain, Vermont
Stratton is among the leading Vermont ski areas in solar energy production; currently 64 percent of all energy used is renewable (wind and solar), with an overall mix that is 94 percent carbon free. Stratton Mountain has also signed onto a 20-year agreement to purchase energy produced by a new solar array in nearby Wallingford. Nearby, Killington Resort embraces the Vermont tradition of buying local, as the K-1 Express Gondola and Peak Lodge are powered solely by energy generated from manure at local dairy farms through a partnership with Green Mountain Power.
Sunlight Mountain Resort, Colorado
Sunlight, at Glenwood Springs, is high in the Colorado Rockies between Vail and Aspen, where they’re incentivizing skiers who have electric vehicles. Sunlight Mountain Resort installed electric vehicle charging stations, with the support of local and statewide partners, and offered a promotion featuring two-for-one lift tickets during opening weekend for all EV drivers. Other sustainability efforts have included installing snow fencing to harness more natural snow, repurposing old snowboards for trail signs, and implementing solar-powered webcams.
Wolf Creek, Colorado
Wolf Creek, close to Pagosa Springs, was the first U.S. mountain to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. The ski area has been purchasing all of its electricity use with wind offsets since 2006. Additionally, a collaboration several years ago between the San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative and owner Davey Pitcher created a 25-acre solar farm in the valley. Wolf Creek now runs entirely on renewable energy (solar during the day and wind at night).
Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico
Taos Ski Valley has become the first major ski resort to become a certified B Corp. This certification helps ensure that Taos Ski Valley meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, sustainability, public transparency, and legal accountability. Becoming a B Corp also means accountability and transparency of Taos Ski Valley’s long-held values of inclusion, sustainability, and respect. Additionally, ski resort officials have announced that they will achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030.
Sun Valley, Idaho
Sun Valley has teamed with the United States Forest Service, continuing a partnership with a Healthy Forests Initiative, resulting in about 18 acres of additional gladed skiing on Bald Mountain and bringing the overall total number of acres to 81. The Initiative improves forest health by clearing overstocked vegetation and trees to reduce hazards and destructive insects. Taking steps to curb the impact of these elements by removing dead and dying trees reduces the risk of catastrophic fires. The result? A healthier forest, reduced fire danger, and a special benefit for all of us: improved terrain for skiing and snowboarding.
Other initiatives have include replacing nearly 300 of Sun Valley’s snowmaking guns with the more highly-efficient Rubis EVO snowmaking guns, solar-powered employee housing, using reusable water cups and offering water filling stations, and a composting program that has resulted in 125.6 tons of kitchen and lawn waste being composted instead of being dumped into a landfill.
North of the border in Eastern Canada, Tremblant has joined the Ecoresponsible Program of the Conseil des Industries Durables. They were the first Quebec business to receive Ecocert Canada’s Level 3 Certification by meeting all criteria and passing its inspections. Tremblant’s most recent sustainability efforts include planting 1,314 trees and offsetting 184 tons of CO2 equivalent.
Banff Sunshine, Alberta
In Alberta, Banff Sunshine, which receives up to 30 feet of snow each year, has a saying, “We don’t make snow; we farm it.” Trail crews build over 30 km of snow fencing that is placed perpendicular to the prevailing winds. The fencing captures snow and builds the snowpack without the need for artificial means. Once a base is developed, the snowmakers are turned off and they let nature run its course to provide Canada’s best snow.
Header image by ©Jack Affleck/Vail Resorts