Auden Schendler: Aspen’s green guy |

Auden Schendler: Aspen’s green guy

ASPEN ” Auden Schendler likens the Earth to a car speeding toward a head-on collision at 60 mph. He hopes to cut that speed in half so that the inevitable crash is survivable.

The planet is in a perilous position because of climate change, according to Schendler, the Aspen Skiing Co.’s executive director of sustainability since 2001. The window of opportunity to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions is rapidly closing, he said. It is inevitable that the planet will suffer cataclysmic changes.

Schendler, 38, has spent his career trying to avert disaster from climate change. He is widely credited with implementing programs that made the Skico an environmental leader in its industry ” and brought many other big ski resorts along, sometimes kicking and screaming behind the scenes.

“One of the things that Auden has done is make waves,” said Randy Udall of Carbondale, an expert on energy issues and greenhouse gas emissions. “He roils the universe, he shakes the boat.”

Through most of its first few decades, the ski industry mostly coasted on environmental issues, helped by the public perception that an industry promoting a healthy outdoor activity must be green, according to Udall. Schendler took a closer look at what the Skico was doing and, with the support of management and employees, overhauled some of its practices. When the Skico gained attention for its environmental initiatives, other major resorts were forced to follow. Now, the ski industry is a major lobbying force against global warming.

“He pushed the industry to be much more outspoken,” Udall said.

Despite his success, Schendler is pessimistic about humankind’s ability to tackle climate change. He said people need a blunt, honest assessment of the challenges. Nonprofit organizations tied to environmentalism won’t tell the truth because their job is to “sell green” ” get people to contribute money and follow their recommendations. That is hard to do with a bleak global outlook.

For the most part, industry will ignore dire forecasts of climate change because private enterprise doesn’t want to invite government regulation. And most politicians won’t risk controversial actions.

“Right now we have the technology to solve climate. It’s a question of political will,” he said. “It’s a marketing battle and (environmentalists) are losing.”

After achieving success with the Skico, Schendler is trying to reach a broader audience with his formula for sustainable living. He wrote a book, “Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution,” which will be released to the public Monday, Feb. 23. It will be available at numerous outlets in the Roaring Fork Valley and nationally.

In the book, Schendler draws on his successes and failures at the Skico to show what steps are relevant and how they can be implemented. True to his style, he doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges facing the planet from climate change. He takes a blunt approach that he calls “tough medicine.”

“Am I worried about bringing people down?” he asked rhetorically. “To some extent they need to be brought down.”

Schendler grew up in New Jersey and realized at an early age that he didn’t like city life. He looked forward to trips to visit his grandparents in North Dakota, planning for the next year’s trip as soon as summer vacation finished. On another trip to see an uncle in Montana, Schendler backpacked in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and was hooked on the outdoors.

He fed that craving at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he majored in biology and environmental studies. After graduating in 1992, Schendler ski-bummed in Colorado. He ended up in the Roaring Fork Valley and flipped burgers at the old CharBurger in Basalt while sharing a double-wide trailer in El Jebel with four roommates.

His first extended effort at environmental activism was working for the Energy Center in Carbondale, insulating and sealing residences of low-income people through a government program. He later landed a job at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Old Snowmass, leading tours, editing newsletters, and researching and consulting on corporate sustainability.

He was hired part-time in 1999 to work in the Skico’s environmental department with former Skico environmental director Chris Lane. It was an ideal situation, Schendler said, because he was able to apply what he learned at RMI.

Lane left the Skico eight years ago for other opportunities in corporate environmentalism and Schendler became the department head. Schendler refuses to take sole credit for environmental improvements the Skico has made during his tenure. “They are company achievements,” he said.

One of the greatest achievements was “a cultural change within the company” where the environmental ethic was embraced by all 3,400 employees, not just one department, he said.

The Skico also has become more political. It joined a federal lawsuit, as a friend of the court, that attempted to force the Environmental Protection Agency during the Bush administration to regulate greenhouse gases. Schendler also testified before Congress on how climate change could doom the ski industry.

“This is a philosophical direction, meaning we think about what matters most and try to pull those levers,” he said.

On the nuts-and-bolts side of environmentalism, Schendler is proud of the Skico’s commitment to green building. About 56 percent of the company’s carbon footprint, or production of greenhouse gases, comes from buildings. The Skico’s new and remodeled buildings have been significantly more energy-efficient, so that footprint will shrink.

The Skico’s carbon footprint has remained flat between 2000 and 2007, even though the company has grown. It has been able to reduce carbon emissions to offset growth by purchasing more wind power from electrical provider Holy Cross Energy.

While the Skico has earned a reputation as the environmental leader in the ski industry, not everyone buys into the reputation.

Aspen native and skiing enthusiast Roger Marolt, an Aspen Times columnist, questions if the Skico is “greenwashing,” or promoting its environmental victories while glossing over its shortcomings. He is willing to give the Skico a little credit ” very little.

“They’re not as bad as they could be,” Marolt said.

Marolt criticizes the Skico for its role in the massive Base Village project and “who they are marketing the resort to.”

The Skico sold the Base Village property to a developer in 2007 and remains a partner in some of the project, which will add more than 1 million square feet of development at the base of Snowmass Ski Area.

Marolt contends that a truly environmental-minded company wouldn’t undertake that much development, regardless of how energy-efficient the buildings will be. The Skico could have set an example by building a smaller project and accepting a smaller profit.

Marolt also feels it is counterproductive to downplay or excuse Aspen’s carbon production. Every person and business that operates in Aspen compromises itself to some degree on the environment, Marolt said. Operating a luxury resort inherently leads to a lot of resource consumption ” from wealthy tourists who arrive in private aircraft to construction and maintenance of energy-consuming trophy homes. He said he has a hard time accepting Aspen’s waste, but acknowledges it is the price that we have to pay.

“We’re probably worse than most communities,” he said.

Hence, he has trouble with the Skico touting its environmental achievements and downplaying its failures.

“That’s the problem with the world ” we all think, ‘Well, the little damage we do isn’t the problem,'” Marolt said.

Schendler acknowledged that the Skico, like all of humankind, is hypocritical; we all consume fossil fuels, and are thus part of the problem. But he bristles at Marolt’s suggestion that the company should just accept what it is and keep quiet.

“The challenge is this: The critics say we can’t talk, and we should shut down Aspen (because) it’s so unnecessarily lavish compared to the rest of society,” Schendler said. “But actually, America is similarly over-consumptive compared to the rest of the world. And Europe is much more consumptive than Japan. What do you do? Close down the U.S.? Shut down Paris?”

“My point is that the criticism is empty and meaningless because we don’t have a magic wand that lets us pick and choose which are morally or energetically acceptable practices,” he continued.

Therefore, humans have to “fix” the entire system and reduce their carbon footprint, whether they are individuals, ski resort operators or chemical producers. Fixing the system involves choosing the most relevant actions and not getting bogged down in meaningless squabbles. The fight over the natural gas-fueled fire hearth on Aspen’s pedestrian mall drives Schendler crazy. To him, it’s a small-time feud that wastes valuable time and energy.

The Skico, on the other hand, tries to pick the biggest issues and leverage the Aspen name to draw attention to its actions. His book drives home that point.

“Aspen is a very powerful lever that can drive large-scale change, and we need to use it,” Schendler said. “To focus on the fact that we clear-cut a mountain is the definition of small-think.”

He shrugs off critics. “Roger Marolt is a speed bump for our effort,” he said.

But even Udall, a friend and ally of Schendler’s, understands Marolt’s concerns. Schendler has done “yeoman work, and I admire the effort,” Udall said, but he still feels a bigger splash could be made.

“I don’t think anything that Auden has done is radical or radically green,” Udall said.

To reach that level, Udall said, Schendler would need to convince the Skico to scale back its snowmaking, for example. Udall found it frustrating to see snowmaking guns blasting at Buttermilk Mountain in December despite near-record snowfall.

“Snowmaking is a personal gripe of mine,” Udall said. “It’s cannibalizing the climate on which the industry depends and yet, in dry years, it’s essential.

“It perfectly illustrates the paradox of trying to ‘green’ industrial tourism.”

Curtailing snowmaking might be “stupid” from a business standpoint, Udall admitted, but it would be “radically green.”

Schendler said snowmaking accounts for between one-third and one-quarter of the Skico’s electricity use, but only about 13 percent of its carbon footprint because some of the electricity comes from renewable sources. Most snowmaking guns were turned off nine days early this season because of the natural snowfall, Schendler said. The most efficient snowmaking guns continued to operate for a longer time.

The Skico commissioned a study this year to determine how to make snow more efficiently. The study includes the option of not making snow, Schendler said. But snowmaking is necessary as a hedge against drought, so its emissions will have to be offset rather than entirely eliminated. It’s a cost of doing business.

Schendler’s book delves into numerous dilemmas faced by the Skico as it tries to “green” its operations. Schendler will give a short presentation about his book, then answer questions as part of the Naturalist Night series at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26.

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