There is a belief among many members of the snowsports industry and community that climate change and shifting global weather patterns will result in reduced snowfall and ski area shut downs within our lifetime. Shorter snow seasons will also financially impact gear and apparel suppliers and hospitality services. There is a continued debate between so-called “deniers” and “warmists,” but that debate is not the scope of this look at taking actual actions in the ski industry.
In early April, the Vermont Ski & Snowboard Museum featured an event entitled “Think Snow: The Future of Winter for Skiers and Riders” as part of the Museum's Red Bench Discussion Series that focuses on topics relevant to skiing and snowboarding. There were nearly 40 people who attended this museum fundraiser event in the middle of downtown Stowe, Vermont.
A five-person panel of ski industry representatives who are directly involved with the issues were invited to discuss examples of addressing climate change. The evening's moderator Adam White, Director of Communications for the Vermont Ski Areas Association introduced the topic and the panelists. His opening comments acknowledged that this winter has been one of the best on record with some Vermont ski areas reporting record visitation and snow amounts. Some of the panelists visited the Vermont statehouse ski caucus earlier in the day to present their case for political action on climate change. Some of the voiced concerns included the declining length of the ski season and the average annual snowpack and the volatility of winter weather where there are some projections that by 2090 will be an 80% reduction of snow at our ski areas.
Lindsay Bourgoine, Director of Policy & Advocacy at the non-profit organization Protect Our Winters (POW) evaluates climate policy opportunities at the both the federal and state level advocating support of clean energy, establishing a price on carbon, electrification of transportation, and public lands for recreation. POW's membership includes professional athletes, outdoor industry companies, ski resorts, and outdoor enthusiasts. She outlined some of outcomes of climate change related to the snowsports mentioned above and she stated “The way we’re going to solve this is through mitigation of carbon emissions more than adaptation.”
Jenn Swain, the Global Senior Sustainability Manager at Burton Snowboards leads a team in development and implementation of sustainability strategies at Burton. They are working in the company departments to progress toward best practices in areas such as fair labor, chemicals management, preferred materials, traceability, waste reduction, circular economy, end of product life, packaging optimization, carbon reduction, goals tracking and benchmarking, communications and marketing, and policy advocacy. “Since 1970, there has been 1-2 week decrease in the Northeast snow season. Burton’s goal is to reduce the imprint of each product category (board, boots, bindings, helmets, goggles) in five years and we’ll do this with material choices, product design, manufacturing practices power sources, and working with suppliers to encourage that they install on-site renewables.”
Burton is a product brand and retail company that is impacting facility operations in Burlington, VT, Austria, and Japan while reducing the impact of each product, advocating the fight against climate change, and educating people at Burton events (which strive to be carbon neutral). The goal is to reduce operations carbon imprint by 20% by 2020.
The panel pondered skier and snowboarder level of support regarding the snowsports industry becoming more sustainable. It was felt that customers appreciate companies working on these issues and some skiers are known to align with brands that they care about. The question is whether customers are motivated to prefer patronizing snow sports businesses that are more sustainable than those that are sitting on the sidelines on sustainability issues. This “loyalty to the cause” may not have been researched but the panelists discussed acceptance of personal sustainability. POW touts that systematic changes are needed and that refers to the organization’s work on elections, voter registration and turnout, lobbying, etc. But with the current administration rolling back energy policy advances, these changes are not happening very much currently.
The panel conversation cited skier affluence and how there are fewer impacts on rich people compared to the realities of how the less affluent can be impacted by climate change issues. Adam Hostetter, a member of the 1998 US Olympic Snowboard Team with ties to Stowe spoke about the responsibility we have for our children. “Skiers and snowboarders have a self righteous demand for perfect snow and impeccable slope grooming and that all comes at a cost.” Bourgoine of POW called for more people to become climate advocates. She recently visited politicos in Nevada and Colorado and she stated that they “are eclipsing Vermont on climate policy.” She followed that statement with “We helped to get a new governor elected in Nevada and they have a clean energy portfolio” in a possible reference to the Vermont governor’s lack of support for more significant climate policy.
Michael Hussey, as General Manager of the Middlebury Snow Bowl and Rikert Nordic Center is engaged in Middlebury College's 2006 initiative to become carbon neutral. He stated “In the 2006-2007 season, the Middlebury Snow Bowl became the first carbon neutral ski facility in the country by purchasing just over $7,000 in carbon offsets from NativeEnergy, a Charlotte, VT privately-held renewable energy company to compensate for about 680 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. In 2016 the entire college became carbon neutral when it received a land conservation tract that was cited for carbon sequestration. But in real terms, the Middlebury Snowbowl reduced its carbon footprint by switching from diesel compressors to substantially more efficient electric compressors eliminating 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually. The next horizon is to produce snow when and where it is needed as Hussey referenced ski areas closing with plenty of snow that was made earlier in the winter. “Curtailable power” is another concept whereby the ski area voluntarily cuts back use of power during prime time winter hours (4-9 PM) in exchange for a lower electric rate. Savings from this idea not only cut back on energy use at Middlebury, it saved $50,000-70,000 a year.
The movement to more efficient snowmaking statewide was the brainchild of Efficiency Vermont in 2014-15 which encouraged the installation of 2,300 new snowguns at ski areas across the state at a cost of $15 million. The newer snowguns use up to 85% less energy. Hussey commented that snowmaking guns in the 1990s used ten times the energy compared to new snowguns. The Rikert Nordic Center is one of the leading cross country ski areas with snowmaking with one of the highest number of days open. Across the nation there are fewer than 40 Nordic ski centers that employ snowmaking. Hussey commented, “It’s a business requirement or you’re not open.” Hussey can present guaranteed programming and races at Rikert where other Nordic ski areas are more susceptible to the weather and often have to cancel events.
Hannah Dreissigacker, as Sustainability Coordinator at Craftsbury Outdoor Center, along with her team have implemented the installation of solar panels, the building of a net-zero activity center, the raising of livestock and produce for their kitchens, creating a composting center and the environmental management of their forest and water resources. Looking at future efforts, Dreisigacker stated “We want to work on the efficiency of our older buildings and on transportation.” Craftsbury is conducting a snow farming experiment to save 9,000 cubic feet of snow to use in the late fall. It is expected that two thirds of that snow will survive and they will need to make less snow (projected to use one quarter of the energy and water) to start their programming.
Some of the tough questions were asked of the panel. The use of renewable energy credits by some alpine ski resorts while supportive of renewable energy was seen as having little impact on local energy use. When asked about use of diesel fuel in grooming vehicles, Hussey referenced the Piston Bully E600, which is a hybrid snowcat moving in the right direction but it is expensive and unproven compared to the current snowcat fleet to be embraced by the ski areas at this time.
A representative of Stowe Mountain Resort also commented that they had eliminated diesel for snowmaking and switched to high efficiency systems. They’ve eliminated the bus transportation at the area replacing it with the efficient “overeasy lift” and ended tour bus idling at the resort. The National Ski Areas Association Climate Challenge shares information on many energy saving practices among ski areas and it has been helpful to enlighten resorts across the continent.
In a wrap up of the discussion, moderator Adam White asked, “What can I do?” Hostetter stated that POW founder Jeremy Jones continues to work on encouraging people to vote, while POW asks snowsports enthusiasts to become advocates. Bourgoine stated “The outdoor business is $887 billion ($5.5 billion in Vermont) and POW is using that clout in its advocacy efforts.” Business leaders have to be innovative in their support. Burton is making changes in its business and educating consumers to make informed decisions. Craftsbury Outdoor Trails Center is exemplary of sustainability actions. Are things changing fast enough?