Aspen and Vail up the enviro-ante

In the environmental arms race among ski resorts, for years Aspen was the sole superpower.

But in recent years other resorts, including Aspen’s major in-state rival, Vail, have been doing some impressive green saber-rattling of their own, although still playing catch-up to Aspen Skiing Company in the all-important marketing battle of public perception.

"I wouldn’t say Aspen forced our hand," Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said. "I would say Aspen has been a really good leader on a lot of these initiatives, and I give them a lot credit for being in the forefront of that."

Under the leadership of former CEO Pat O’Donnell, a ski industry veteran who cut his environmental teeth heading up clothing manufacturer Patagonia in the 1980s, Aspen was the first ski company in the nation to create an environmental affairs department and hire a full-time environmental director.

"To me, this is not about who’s first, this is about doing the right thing," Katz added. "And I certainly encourage Aspen to continue to take these initiatives just like we do, and I certainly hope that we can both be constructive leaders in this overall effort."

Katz’s first big green move at the helm of Vail Resorts came in 2006 when he announced the purchase of Renewable Energy Credits (REC) to offset the 152,000 megawatts of energy consumed by the company’s five ski resorts, hotels and retail outlets in Colorado and California. Months earlier, Aspen had already announced it would offset 100 percent of its energy use with wind credits.

"I thought (Vail’s) initial REC purchase was ill-advised, but they were actually following the lead of Aspen Skiing Company, and I thought Aspen Skiing Company’s was ill-advised," said Aspen-based independent energy analyst Randy Udall, brother of Colorado congressman Mark Udall.

"Some Renewable Energy Credits have value and are worth doing and actually lead to a better world, and others don’t," added Udall, who lumps ski-resort REC purchases in the latter category of "green-washing" because they don’t help to increase actual renewable energy generation.

But even on-site renewable energy projects, such as Aspen’s $1 million, 150-kilowatt solar system in Carbondale, are pricey, high-profile projects that amount to an drop in the energy-consumption bucket, Udall said.

Ditto the recent request to the U.S. Forest Service by Vail Resorts to install two one-kilowatt wind turbines atop Vail Mountain, a drastically scaled-back version of a defunct Vail plan from five years ago to install four 100-kilowatt wind turbines. Udall is much more impressed by conservation efforts such as Vail Resorts’ recent announcement it will try to reduce its energy use by 10 percent overall in fiscal 2008.

"In the past, I’ve criticized some of the things Vail has done as green-washing, but this new program is significant," Udall said. "It’s something Aspen Skiing Company hasn’t done. So if (Vail Resorts) actually achieves that goal – it’s not impossible, although it won’t be easy – I think Rob (Katz) has raised the ante with that new program."

Udall is also pleased just to see ski companies like Vail at least talking a good game as far as conservation and green initiatives go, although he argued both Vail and Aspen have a long way to go to offset their massive and growing carbon footprints.

"They’re predominantly trying to grow their bottom line; that’s what corporations do," he said. "And growing the bottom line in many cases simply increases environmental impacts, but we live in a society that values the former more than the latter right now, and that’s the challenge Vail and Aspen Skiing Company both face."

Ryan Bidwell, executive director of the Durango-based environmental watchdog group Colorado Wild, helps facilitate the annual environmental report card issued by the Ski Area Citizens Coalition. That report regularly downgrades Vail Resorts for real estate development and ski terrain expansions, while typically giving Aspen higher marks for its green initiatives.

"I think Aspen and Vail are getting closer together in terms of some of their proactive conservation programs, and that’s encouraging from our perspective," said Bidwell, but the environmental bottom line for all ski areas may in the end have more to do with the financial bottom line than doing the right thing for the planet.

"Ultimately, the calculation for Vail is whether it’s in their financial best interest to do these things," Bidwell said. "Increasingly, it’s becoming clear to a lot of companies that it is. Whether you look at it from a marketing perspective or from a long-term, cost-savings perspective as you’re building new infrastructure, making it energy efficient is a pretty reasonable thing to do."

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.

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