Competing ski industry officials present united front on climate at Park City summit
In the face of a warming global climate, the ski industry is realizing that it has a pretty big platform relative to its size — and its stakeholders say they’re willing to cooperate in order to survive.
At a Wednesday panel held during the Mountain Towns 2030 conference in Park City, Utah, representatives of four of North America’s most prominent resort owners discussed their roles in addressing the world’s changing climate.
The panelists — Vail Resorts’ Kate Swayne Wilson, Alterra Mountain Co.’s David Perry, Powdr’s Laura Schaffer and Boyne Resorts’ Stephen Kircher — gave individual presentations on their efforts for an hour, with about 20 minutes set aside for a Q&A session with moderator Bruce Kasanoff and the audience.
The Utah factor
Because the companies are often the primary economic drivers in the communities where they own resorts, they play an essential role in the communities’ efforts to deal with the warming climate. Perhaps nowhere is that more visible for the country’s major resort owners than in the Salt Lake City metro, where Park City lies.
The central Wasatch Range presents a dense web of competing ski areas, the majority of which are prominent assets of the major resort firms and align either with the Epic Pass or the Ikon Pass.
Alterra, which owns Solitude Mountain Resort and Deer Valley Resort, wages a two-front battle against Boyne’s Brighton Resort and Vail Resorts’ Park City Mountain Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon and in Park City, respectively. Powdr, meanwhile, brings Snowbird’s double-black mystique to bear in Little Cottonwood Canyon and plans to open Woodward Park City this December. (Alta, in Little Cottonwood, is independently owned.)
However, the panelists agreed that without reliable winters, Utah won’t have its famous natural powder — or even the hardpack — to fight over in the first place.
“What’s good for business is good for the planet,” said Kircher, president and CEO of Boyne, which is headquartered in Michigan.
The National Ski Association provides a framework for resort companies to share hard data from their green initiatives, which includes Vail Resorts’ “Zero Waste to Landfill” goal and its partnership with Rocky Mountain Power’s renewable energy initiative.
“We absolutely believe we need bipartisan climate legislation now,” said Wilson, Vail Resorts’ director of sustainability. She also said that Vail Resorts has lobbied for a federal carbon tax and is “regretting” the Trump administration’s actions on the climate, including pulling out of the Paris Accord.
Powdr, which owns a number of other ventures outside of skiing, cut its carbon emissions nearly in half by relating the climate change data to its employees and customers on a personal level, according to Schaffer.
“Sustainability or work on climate change or care for environment or whatever you want to call it is a change in mindset. A change in mindset absolutely has to be required,” Schaffer said. “It’s not just a laundry list of projects that we’re doing. … There needs to be more.”
A loud megaphone
If every resort and city represented at the conference hit their sustainability goals, it almost certainly wouldn’t make a dent in the global march past 2 degrees Celsius, Wilson said.
While the effects of climate change on American mountain towns — which trend wealthier on average — won’t compare to the havoc wreaked on communities in developing countries. Kircher, whose company pioneered chairlift and snowmaking technology, said the resort industry can wield its outsized influence in business and politics as a tool in spurring change.
“I think the ski industry is the canary in the coal mine,” Kircher said. “We’re not a big industry relative to the global economy, but we power something that can make a loud noise and drive change.”
Inseparable from sustainability is the issue of growth, especially in the Mountain West, where populations and economic outputs are exploding in size. In response to a question from an audience member, Perry, the former Aspen Skiing Co. chief operating officer, said ambitious climate goals should be balanced with the needs of businesses that strive to keep going indefinitely.
“My definition of ‘sustainable’ is being in business forever,” Perry said. “Sometimes in our communities that we do business with, the idea of growth is a big battleground. … All of a sudden growth becomes this big giant obstacle that is seen as evil, and that can be at odds with companies, businesses, small businesses that want to grow and perform.”
The Alterra chief connected the need for growth with the introduction and reception of the company’s multi-resort Ikon Pass last year, which drew noticeably larger crowds to resorts around the country, including Deer Valley.
“When we introduced the Ikon Pass last year, we started getting a lot of negative feedback from Jackson Hole, Big Sky, Aspen, (saying) … ‘You’re going to ruin mountain towns because people have dreamed of coming there forever and now they’re actually showing up,’” Perry said. “We need to talk about the elephant in the room, which is what growth in mountain towns really means.”
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