A dirty business, coming clean

Chase Jarvis/Aspen

Aidan Sheahan at the Elk Creek Coal Mine, where Aspen Skiing Company will be capturing methane waste to power their ski resorts.

Whenever pro skiers or snowboarders talk about the subject of climate change, there's always a question of hypocrisy: How can an athlete preach about having a small carbon footprint while simultaneously flying around the world in planes and helicopters to chase snow?

The same could be said for ski resorts, which rely on snow and cold temperatures, yet have business practices that potentially contribute to the climate situation.

These questions were addressed this week when a group of snow-sports athletes and some of North America's top ski-resort executives gathered in San Francisco for a discussion titled "Mountain Meltdown" at Climate One, an organization that facilitates dialogue on energy, the environment and the economy.

The symposium took place at The Commonwealth Club on Tuesday night. It was the first of its kind to bring together professional athletes and the resort industry on the subject of warming winters and their effect on tourism in the ski and snowboard industries.

Meg Haywood Sullivan

Chris Klug, Tommy Moe, Jonny Moseley, Kimmy Fasani, Jeremy Jones, Jenn Berg and Jess McMillan at the Liftopia headquarters in San Francisco.

On display was a group of people who understand and admit that although their day-to-day lives and careers may involve a higher-than-normal carbon output, they also have a huge opportunity to invoke change.

According to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters, the U.S. winter tourism industry has lost roughly $1 billion and up to 27,000 jobs due to declining snowfall in recent years.

"In North America over the last several decades, there has been a 1.5 to 2 percent decline of snowfall per decade, so that means the snow season is getting shorter," said Anne Nolin, a professor of geosciences and hydroclimatology at Oregon State University who spoke on Tuesday's panel. "The lower elevations are getting hit the hardest, where you see snow shifting into rain."

"This is way bigger than skiing," said panelist and Powder magazine features editor Porter Fox, whose new book, "DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow," will be published in November. "Yes, we want to save skiing. But we want skiers, literally, to help save the world."

Snowboarder Jeremy Jones, the founder of Protect Our Winters, returned last week from a month-long trip to Nepal, where he was filming for the final part of his trilogy, "Higher," just in time to sit on the panel at this week's climate talk.

"I think this is one of the first times we've had a collection of the world's best resorts come and speak on this matter," Jones said. "It's a huge step forward that we're just having this conversation in the first place."

When pressed on the subject of his own carbon footprint, Jones said, "I continue to reduce where I can, but still live my life. Ten years ago, I used to spend 20 or 30 days [per season] in a helicopter. About six years ago, I stopped using helicopters to access the mountains. I used to chase snow -- 10 days here, four days there -- but these days I'm doing one to two month-long trips instead."

The truth is, a lot of snowboarders and skiers spend all year accruing massive personal carbon-emission tallies -- riding chairlifts, flying to snowy destinations. Yet, despite their potential influence and extensive social media reach, unlike Jones, most do little to nothing in their spare time to advocate for the winters that appear to be changing before our very eyes.

The second panel of the evening featured the presidents of Whistler Blackcomb, Aspen/Snowmass and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, all members of the Mountain Collective, a group of resorts that recently joined forces with Protect Our Winters. Whistler Blackcomb CEO Dave Brownlie spoke about Whistler's hydroelectric project, and Aspen Skiing Company CEO Mike Kaplan talked about their $5.4 million plan to capture methane waste from a nearby coal mine and use it to generate electricity.

The message appeared clear: Yes, we admit ski resorts are essentially a dirty business. But there's a chance here for us to clean up our act, a chance for us to empower others to come up with creative solutions and an opportunity for us to use our voices to make significant and long-lasting change.

"To really tackle this problem at scale, you've got to have government-scale approaches to this," Kaplan said. "Acting alone isn't enough. We signed onto this because it's a collective effort. We think collectively, we have a stronger voice and [we] can hopefully spur the government into action."

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