Basalt’s Chris Lane takes environmentalism to another level
July 10, 2009
BASALT – Chris Lane of Basalt has one of the coolest jobs in the country – and possibly one of the most important, too.
Lane is vice president of environmental affairs for a company called Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the largest concessionaire in the U.S. national parks. His job, in a nutshell, is to “green” the operations of his corporation at some of the most exceptional sites in the country. Xanterra has contracts with the National Park Service to run lodging, restaurants, retail shops and other operations at gems such as Death Valley, South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion and Yellowstone.
The company operates 5,200 guest rooms in 34 hotels and lodges, 65 restaurants, 53 stores and has 8,200 seasonal employees. The parks where it operates host 18 million visitors annually – people flushing toilets, flipping the switch on air conditioning units, disposing tons of trash and buying rubber tomahawks. Lane, 42, travels the country devising ways for Xanterra to improve its environmental practices while serving those customers.
The national parks tend to draw visitors who are consider themselves environmentalists, to some degree. And many of them are eager to learn more when they see Xanterra’s one megawatt solar photovoltaic system at Death Valley, stay in Zion Lodge’s “green suites,” or read that Yellowstone manages to divert more than 70 percent of the solid waste from the landfill.
“This is a chance to take environmentalism to another level,” Lane said. “It’s a way to take corporate responsibility to another level.”
Lane first made his mark in corporate environmentalism with the Aspen Skiing Co. He came to Aspen as a ski bum in the 1990s but put his degree in environmental engineering from the University of Florida to good use. His early jobs included working for a spin-off of the Rocky Mountain Institute and, later, the Roaring Fork Railroad Authority, which helped acquire the Rio Grande right of way and prepared plans for light rail use.
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Former Skico President and CEO Pat O’Donnell tapped Lane for the firm’s first director of environmental affairs in the mid-1990s. “He was a bit of a contrarian and I liked that,” O’Donnell said. “I thought he would hold our practices up for scrutiny, which would be a good thing. He wouldn’t cut us any slack. He wouldn’t be a ‘yes’ man or a figurehead.
“He proved out,” O’Donnell concluded.
Lane brought Auden Schendler onto his team at the Skico and together they helped build the Skico into an industry leader on environmental issues. During that time, President Clinton adopted rules that required increased environmental performance from companies that did business with the federal government. Xanterra and its competitors in the hospitality business needed to increase their green practices in order to win lucrative contracts at the national parks.
Xanterra’s CEO saw Lane give a presentation regarding corporate greening at the Skico and approached him in 2000 with a job offer. It was a painful parting of ways for both Lane and O’Donnell, but a career opportunity both knew Lane had to take. It was good for Lane and good for the cause of environmentalism.
“It was a chance to say ‘Hey you’re doing all of this in Aspen – now you get a chance to do this all over the country,'” Lane said.
Lane is on Xanterra’s executive team and answers directly to President and CEO Andrew Todd. A staff of nine environmental directors report to Lane, and some of them have staffs at the various parks. Lane is the ideas guy who pitches plans to improve the company’s environmental profile to the executive team. The focus of many of the plans is to reduce Xanterra’s burning of fossil fuels, which releases carbon and other gases that most scientists agree causes climate change.
Lane said Xanterra’s operations can eventually become carbon neutral – contributing no greenhouse gases to the atmosphere – but the firm will take a pragmatic path to the goal. Environmental programs won’t be funded simply to make the company more green. They must make fiscal sense as well.
“The CEO and CFO are businessman,” he said. “They’re not crunchy granola heads.”
Xanterra’s massive solar farm is probably the company’s signature green move, to date. It’s eye-catching and cost effective. “It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my professional life,” Lane said.
Xanterra owns many of the facilities it operates in Death Valley, dating back to its days as a resort operator before there was a national park there. Therefore, it knows it can make a large investment and eventually recoup the costs since it isn’t competing for a management contract. That made the $8.5 million investment in the solar farm easier to swallow. Tax incentives and credits available through the California Solar Initiative also allow the company accelerate its return on investment.
Xanterra installed nearly 6,000 solar panels over a solid five acres, an area equivalent to five football fields.
The solar farm, completed in February 2008, will generate 2.2 million kilowatt hours annually for at least 30 years – enough electricity to power between 500 and 600 homes. The solar photovoltaic system will handle 35 percent of the annual electric demand at Death Valley – a demand that is immense since air conditioners run full blast around the clock nearly year-round at many facilities. The solar farm handles 90 to 100 percent of the power demand while it is operating during daylight hours.
The system will eliminate 23,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime or about 4 percent of the company’s current total.
Overall, 18 percent of Xanterra’s electricity usage at national parks comes from renewable energy sources.
The Death Valley project is an example of Lane at his best, said Schendler, his good friend and former colleague at the Aspen Skiing Co. “That took five years off his life,” Schendler said, stressing that the planning and preparation of the immense project is difficult to comprehend and the oversight was nerve-racking. And that’s why it was the perfect challenge for Lane.
“He’s very good about getting his foot in the door and blowing it up to the next level,” Schendler said. “He’s an ass-kicker.”
Schendler credits Lane not only with changing Xanterra but, more importantly, doing it in a way that makes other corporations take notice because of the very visible projects in very high-profile locations. “He’s changing corporate culture on climate change,” Schendler said.
To ask Lane to narrow down Xanterra’s environmental accomplishments to a select few is like torturing him. He’s like a little boy standing beneath a Christmas tree trying to decide which present to open first. He gushes about one project, stops mid-sentence and dives into description of another. Here are some of Xanterra’s highlights:
• Sustainable cuisine. The company says it is aggressively pursuing a goal of “using products that are grown, harvested, processed, packaged and distributed with the least amount of environmental impact.” While growing by leaps and bounds, sustainable cuisine purchases totaled only 11.4 percent of company-wide food purchases in 2006. The goal is to reach 50 percent by 2015.
• Fossil fuel usage. The company has reduced its electricity usage and heating fuel oil usage by double digits since 2000 and natural gas usage fell by a single digit. Use of diesel fuel, gas and propane have all increased. The goal is to decrease all fossil fuel usage by 30 percent by 2015. That would translate into a 30 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.
• Sustainable design. Six suites at Zion Lodge were renovated to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Features include all-natural biodegradable soap, organic bamboo sheets and linens, compact fluorescent lighting and dual flush toilets. Automated heat and air conditioning systems use sensors to detect body heat and motion to control the temperature within a predetermined range. Key card lighting controls make lighting within a room operable only when a guest inserts the key card into a slot by the entry door. That saves an estimated 15 percent of energy consumed.
One of Lane’s first tasks at Xanterra was to implement an internal audit system like he developed at the Skico. He measured Xanterra’s performance in key environmental areas in 2000 and uses it as a baseline for comparisons. The company produces a glossy, picture-oriented Environmental Sustainability Report each year. Those impressive reports are prominently displayed in rooms in lodges in Yellowstone, Zion and at Xanterra’s other properties. The pieces are intended to be room copies, but they have a habit of going home with guests.
“We’ve gotten just great ridiculous amounts of feedback from this,” Lane said. He estimated he fields 300 calls per year from people who want to learn more about a specific environmental initiative they learned about in the company’s Sustainability Report. “To some extent, we’re a model for what people can do,” he said.
Nearly every company that touts its environmental practices opens itself to accusations of “green washing” – using environmental issues to improve the bottom line without necessarily helping the environment. But if critics of Xanterra’s environmental policies exist, they are tough to find. A spokesman for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a nonprofit focused on issues in and around the magnificent park, said he knew little about Xanterra one way or another, “which I guess is probably a good thing.”
Lane said he can say with confidence that Xanterra is making a difference in the national parks where is operates. But there is no such thing as doing enough to protect the environment, he said.
“Essentially, environmental work is literally never ending,” Lane said. “It’s not like reaching the summit of a mountain where you succeed and now you can descend and it’s over. It’s more like trying to keep your house clean and maintained – no matter how many times you clean and maintain it, it always gets dirty again and needs more work.
“Still, Xanterra is a leader in the evolution toward sustainability, but business in general has just begun to truly assess the environmental problems of the world.”
Neither O’Donnell nor Schendler believe Lane is capable of green washing. “I don’t think Chris has ever compromised his principles,” said Schendler.
O’Donnell said he has followed Lane’s accomplishments, to some degree, through old friends in the park service. “He’s been hitting them out of the park for those guys,” he said.
Even so, Lane almost wasn’t able to stick with his dream job. The position initially required him to move with his family to the Denver area. Lane was unhappy because he was spending too much time on interstate highways and not enough time on single-track mountain trails. He was ready to leave after a few years, but his bosses gave him the leeway to work out of a small office in Basalt, which means he and his wife, Diana, and their daughter Ava, 4, and son Zealand, 2, are back in the valley they love.
Lane still travels a lot, but at least he can now immerse himself in “wilderness therapy” while in the valley. He is an avid hiker, climber and cyclist. A veteran rider in the Aspen Cycling Club provided an anecdote that demonstrates Lane’s tenacity. The rider said he can count on fierce competition from the same handful of riders in their weekly races. But when Lane is in town and has time to compete, he messes with the pecking order and competes for the top spot in his age category.
While the environment might need Lane, Lane definitely needs the environment.
“Every free second I have away from work is either with my family or immersed in nature – or with my family while immersed in nature,” Lane said. “We are avid campers. My kids love sleeping outside and playing next to a raging river. In nature – away from technology, masses of people, TV, and the amenities of life – is the only place I find peace.”
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