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Growing Like a Downhill Snowball 

Sustainability at ski resorts is ever more common, but is it too late?

This is not the winter that the ski industry, nor skiers, in Oregon wants—and, more broadly, many are worried that this year is a sign of winters to come.

Mt. Ashland, which was closed all last season, has eeked open for a few days, and snow coverage at Hoodoo has been spotty. Nordic ski areas—notably Meissner adjacent to the Cascade Lakes Highway in Central Oregon and Tea Cup on the backside of Mt. Hood, which sit at slightly lower elevations than nearby alpine ski areas—have been closed more days than open this winter.

Certainly there have been droughts in Oregon, and correspondingly lousy ski seasons, but what is notably different is that, according to the latest survey data, the state has received near-normal precipitation since October. It is, quite simply, that the world is getting warmer. (Last year, average temperatures crept up even more, marking 2014 as the warmest year in recorded history.)

For the ski industry, there is a troubling irony: Although an outdoor sport, the ski industry is not inherently eco-friendly. In Oregon, most skiers travel more than 60 miles for a day of skiing, a disturbing number given that carbon emissions from tailpipes are a primary contributor to global warming. Quite simply, it isn't a sustainable equation.

But, that said, ski resorts are scrambling to break the cause-and-effect cycle of global warming. In particular, Mt. Bachelor has joined a vanguard of ski resorts throughout North America, overhauling its operations to reduce carbon emissions—and in the process, perhaps helping save winter and the ski industry.

A Growing Trend

At the turn of the last century, climate change was still a concept most often shelved along with Birkenstocks and flax seed. Prius and wind turbines were, at best, nascent novelties. The concept of "global warming" was still a debated reality, although in 2006 Al Gore's blockbuster An Inconvenient Truth helped push sustainability and the reduction of carbon emissions into the mainstream.

But in 2000, with the battle cry "keeping winter cool," the National Ski Area Association (NSAA) took it upon itself to declare a Sustainable Slopes Environmental Charter. (By comparison, the Kyoto Protocol, which guides nations on carbon emissions, wasn't ratified until 2002.) Although many of Oregon's ski resorts reside within federal lands, the Sustainable Slopes Environmental Charter is not a regulation, but simply a request by a private organization for voluntary compliance. Recognizing the sizable amount of energy necessary to manage ski resorts and its impact on the environment, the charter urges individual resorts to examine current practices, and what to do differently. Eight of Oregon's 12 major downhill resorts were charter members, including Mt. Bachelor, Hoodoo and Anthony Lakes.

Three years ago, NSAA stepped up its efforts even more, and set out a Climate Challenge. Far less well known, but similar to the Leadership in Environmental Energy and Design (LEED) certification process for designating certain buildings environmentally-friendly, the Climate Challenge asks resorts to take measurable steps toward reducing their carbon emissions—and awards points for compliance. The goal is far-reaching: By 2020, to reduce carbon emissions to nearly half the current rates.

At first, only eight out of the 500 or so resorts in North America joined the Climate Challenge. The following year, those pioneers were joined by another seven; Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Hood Meadows both signed up. And this season, 30 resorts have joined this lead group.

In particular, Mt. Bachelor has taken on a wide-reaching number of programs—some obvious and easy, others more challenging in their efforts to change entrenched protocols.

"The easiest sustainability initiative has been to purchase enough wind energy credits to offset 100 percent of our chairlifts' electrical power usage," says Drew Jackson, the marketing and communication manager at Mt. Bachelor. He adds, "The greatest challenge has been to upgrade old buildings and make them more energy efficient."

In the latest report from NSAA, Mt. Bachelor reports energy credits have offset a carbon footprint the equivalent of removing 5,163 cars from Oregon's roadways each year.

More directly, Mt. Bachelor has pushed to actually reduce the number of cars coming and going on Century Drive—and also enforces a "no idling program" for vehicles in its parking lots. All told, from that effort the ski area claims a reduction of seven million pounds of greenhouse gases annually—or, a reduction of 1.7 million vehicle miles in 2014.

Jackson points out that these sustainability programs are a "win-win." Explaining that the goal is to reach the triple-bottom line—reduced carbon emissions, reduced costs and improved lifestyles—he talks about how Mt. Bachelor replaced all of the lighting in its vehicle maintenance shop with LED bulbs. "The new lights reduced our carbon footprint, reduced our energy cost and improved the brightness of the shop for our employees," he explains.

Do The Right Thing

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming in Mt. Bachelor's sustainability efforts is its lack of publicity of the initiatives.

Interestingly, a 2012 study by Madeline Phillips, "Perceptions of Sustainability," which surveyed hundreds of skiers at Oregon resorts, points out that Oregonians strongly value environmentally friendly business practices—with some four out of five respondents saying it is important that ski areas practice sustainability, and roughly that same number saying that knowing a ski resort is working toward sustainability would affect whether they patronize the resort. Yet, whether poor marketing or simple modesty, Mt. Bachelor does little to advertise its efforts and its role as a leader in the ski industry's efforts toward lessening carbon emissions.

Jackson admits Mt. Bachelor's shortcoming marketing its sustainability initiatives, but just as quickly points to the resort's future plans. "Mt. Bachelor received a federal grant for an engineering and feasibility study on the idea of installing a biomass plant in our base area," he says. "If constructed," he continues, "the biomass plant would use local forest debris as fuel to produce energy so that we could replace and retire our current propane heating system. The plant would also aid forest management personnel in making a portion of the nearby forest more fire-resistant by removing highly-flammable natural debris."

All of which sounds good. Yet, will be it enough?

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