Friday, December 4, 2009

Colorado's Green Ski Resorts

Worms that eat coffee grounds. Old motor oil that heats workshops. Patio furniture made of recycled milk jugs.

Colorado ski resorts are going beyond standard recycling in an effort to green up their industry — and lure skiers and snowboarders concerned about the impact their sport is having on the mountains they love.

Sometimes it's hard to reconcile our ski-loving, traveling side with the side that cringes at the environmental effect of all those people on the snowy slopes and the travel we do to get there. On one hand, you're gliding past pristine, snow-frosted pines, sucking crisp mountain air into your lungs and bursting with love for the outdoors. Then you sit down for an hour at an on-mountain restaurant and watch heaps of napkins, disposable silverware and plastic cups get tossed in the garbage can.

Happily, resorts today seem more and more interested in reducing waste, pushing alternative transportation, using renewable energy, recycling and teaming up for environmental partnerships. Sure, there's a long way to go. But the effort is gaining speed, kind of like a downhill skier on a steep run.

In the past five years, Vail ski resort has doubled the amount of trash it recycles. Today, 70 percent of everything that comes off the mountain is recycled, says Luke Cartin, the environmental manager for Vail Resorts Eagle County.

"We fill the equivalent of three city buses every week with bottles, cans and glass," Cartin says.

It's not the only example. Used engine oil is re-used to heat workshops, antifreeze is recycled and a plan to reuse vegetable oil for electricity is in the works. The resort is even gearing up a composting program. "And I have worms in my office that eat coffee grounds," Cartin says.

But some things aren't yet recycled — like restaurant food waste and general trash from waste bins at the base area.

Vail is making a push to reduce energy use by 10 percent in two years. Cartin has been prowling the resort, taking infrared photos of buildings on the mountain to see where heat escapes and to repair those leaks. Crews installed solar panels on the roof of a mountain restaurant, and crews have changed out 3,500 light bulbs to compact flourescents. They're also looking at obvious ways to make the place more efficient, like consolidating food storage during off months.

"If we shut down Two Elk (the on-mountain restaurant) for the summer and leave the ice machine on, that's not a good thing," he says.

Gas consumption has dropped 16 percent in the past two years at Vail ski resort. "That's just by changing the way we do things, being more aware, not leaving trucks idling or out driving around for the sake of driving around," he says.

Aerators have been added to faucets to save water. Low-flow toilets and urinals have been installed. In the last five years, the resort has reduced its consumption of treated water by 27 percent.

On the slopes, crews are teaming with the U.S. Forest Service to study how stands of pine trees killed by a pine beetle explosion are regenerating. They're also looking at how to use the dead wood left behind. One answer? Replace natural gas firepits with pits that burn wood.

And at the on-mountain Nature Discovery Center, operated by the Gore Range Natural Science School, kids and adults learn about the environment through free guided snowshoe hikes, exhibits and interpretive programs.

Bat boxes have been put up around the mountain to encourage a population of mosquito-eating flying mammals, and the famous back ski bowls are closed in spring for elk calving.

"It's really, truly being responsible," Cartin says. "You have to be able to lay your head on your pillow every night. It's intrinsic to why people come out here — for the natural beauty. When people come out here, they feel that tie back to nature, so we want to lessen our impact on those surroundings."

Vail is not alone.

More than a third of Colorado resorts already offset 100 percent of their energy use through the purchase of renewable energy credits. Leading the way are Arapahoe Basin, Copper Mountain, Crested Butte and Wolf Creek, which offset all their energy use. Resorts including Powderhorn, Steamboat, Telluride, Winter Park, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass offset part of their operational energy use.

Here's what other Colorado resorts are doing to green up operations:

Arapahoe Basin:Kitchen oil and grease are recycled, along with cardboard, bottles and paper. The new deck at Black Mountain Lodge is being built with recycled products. Employees are encouraged to compost food scraps. Worms are harvested, and the vermacompost (worm manure) is given away to staff for their gardens. The resort uses an airless snowmaking system that uses less electricity. It has expanded shuttle bus service and discounted lift ticket rates to carpoolers.

Aspen/Snowmass: Aspen's executive director of sustainability, Auden Schendler, recently published a book about how corporations can go greener. The ski area recently funded the ski industry's largest solar array and is exploring hydro and wind energy sources.

Copper Mountain:The resort's environmentally friendly buses are nearly 60 percent more efficient than standard buses. The resort has reduced snowmobile fuel consumption by 40 percent in two years and installed solar panels in its transportation center. Recycling is a priority, and carpooling incentives like parking and season pass giveaways are available. Copper has partnered with the National Forest Foundation to fund local conservation projects.

Crested Butte:Besides resortwide recycling and green building, the resort donates a percentage of property sales and business sales to preserving open space in the Gunnison Valley.

Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort:The resort uses bio-fuels in vehicle fleets and machines and operates a resortwide recycling program and an employee carpool program. Guests who carpool get free close-in parking.

Silverton: This no-frills ski area has been built of recycled products either donated or bought used. The base lodge was donated by the town of Silverton, and the only lift was purchased used from Mammoth Resort in California. The equipment facility is an old school bus.

Steamboat: Three chairlifts use a combination of alternative energies including solar and wind power. Besides recycling glass, cardboard, aluminum, plastic, tin, and paper, the resort recycles coffee grounds. New patio furniture is made from recycled milk jugs. Disposable products used at the resort are made from renewable resources and are biodegradable. In a joint project with the U.S. Forest Service and the Boy Scouts of America, more than 800 spruce seedlings were planted at the ski area's kids area. Low-flush toilets and auto shut-off faucets have been added.

Telluride: The resort uses biodiesel in some on-mountain machinery. Restaurants use natural sugar cane to-go containers, and food receipts are printed only when guests specifically ask for them. The maintenance department now uses bulk chemicals and is phasing out aerosol cans. It uses cloth rags for cleaning instead of paper towels. A waste oil heater burns all food and beverage fryer oils and some maintenance shop oils. Old rental shop skis are used for trail sign posts.

Winter Park: Besides recycling, the resort uses biodegradable products such as plates and cups in food service areas.

Wolf Creek: Wind power and solar power are used to power small outlying buildings. The resort recycles just about everything, including kitchen oil, and is working to get ski boot manufactures to recycle old plastic ski boots. The resort has introduced a free online carpool service designed to match up visitors coming from anywhere in the country to the resort.; 445-3994

Who's green?

The Ski Area Citizens' Coalition ranks ski resorts from best to worst, according to what they are doing to save the environment. Among the greenest, according to the coalition, are the Colorado resorts of Aspen, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands and Telluride. Among the least green? Copper Mountain and Breckenridge ski resorts.


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