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Steamboat Magazine

Saving Our Slopes

11/05/2021 03:08PM ● By Eugene Buchanan

Photograph by Larry Pierce

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, CO – Like a snowball gaining momentum down Chute One, ski resorts across the country are incorporating sustainability into their operations, both to do what’s right as well as to help alleviate the ramifications of climate change, which is affecting their industry. Steamboat Ski Resort is no exception, with one of its biggest steps being the recent hiring of Sarah Jones, the former executive director of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, to fill its new position of director of sustainability and community engagement.

“The ski industry is very invested in sustainability because our business is directly linked to a snowy climate,” says Jones, adding that this focus also includes the local community to make the resort better for the next generations of skiers and riders. “We understand that the health of our business is directly tied to the health of our environment, and that climate change is a huge threat to our business and community’s way of life.”

Jones admits that rolling out new initiatives last year amidst pandemic protocols was difficult for the resort and that, for all its progress, it can always do more. 

“Some resorts have been doing this work for a long time and are further along on the sustainability path than we are,” she says. “And COVID required every resort to pause their sustainability efforts – think of the uptick in single-use products everyone had to use last winter. But sustainability has been part of our culture for a long time, from our initial Zero Waste initiatives to our efforts to make snowmaking more efficient, and we’re continuing to build on this momentum for real change.”

With a better handle on COVID concerns this season, the resort is now doubling down on its sustainability efforts, with more on the horizon. One obvious change, especially in our drought cycle, concerns snowmaking. The resort, Jones says, is now using more environmentally friendly snowmaking guns, ensuring 80 percent of the snow made from its draws off the Yampa River flows back into the waterway.

It’s also enacting programs to reduce energy usage operating its gondola and chairlifts, and it recently participated on the project management team for the Routt County Climate Action Plan. “Our operations are in the top 10 users of electricity and water within our county,” Jones says. “We also generate a lot of waste. It’s important that we be at the table when developing strategies for emissions reduction to ensure we can implement them and help lead the way.”

In addition to minimizing and recycling waste from its food operations, the ski area did the same thing as part of this past summer’s base area demolition. “Our facilities team worked hard to divert as much waste as possible,” says Jones, adding that furniture, lockers, equipment and even lightbulbs were either removed from the buildings for reuse, given away or recycled, resulting in a 70 percent diversion rate. Jones adds that all the new buildings in the base area will also be LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), achieving a globally recognized standard of sustainability.

Jones adds that management also realizes the issue of climate change and environmental stewardship is bigger than any resort and that “we have to work together to combine our voices to really make effective climate action and policy.” As such, the resort also partnered with The Nature Conservancy to host a webinar looking at climate change impacts and action through the lens of ski resort operations, and participated with the city and county to help identify local transportation solutions. This summer, parent company Alterra also partnered with Vail Resorts, Powdr Corp. and Boyne Mountain to publish a Climate Collaborative Charter, pledging to work together on the issue.

Like heading back up for another ski run, the resort has more sustainability initiatives it’s rolling out this season. The first is eliminating all single-use plastic drinking containers. “Our food and beverage department has been working hard to move away from single-use plastic bottles and cups this season,” she says. “Wherever possible, fountain and bar drinks will be served in reusable cups. We’re also working with Ball Corp. to replace beer and cocktail cups with aluminum ones.”

The resort will still have reusable cups at its water filling stations and sell reusable Vapur bottles at retail, but it will no longer have single-use plastic bottles of water and soda; they, too, will be replaced with aluminum. “We chose aluminum over plastic because it’s infinitely recyclable and the rates of recycling, even in rural communities like Steamboat, are higher than plastics,” she says. 

And a big part of its efforts, she says, remains with continual strategic planning for the future, getting through whatever red tape the ski area needs to in order to keep making its operations – and slopes – green.

“These efforts we’re doing aren’t as visible as the ones we’re doing on the mountain, but they’re a huge step in our climate action and environmental stewardship work,” Jones says, adding that the resort kicked-off a strategic planning process in September with hopes to have a plan complete by the end of the ski season. “It will define our climate action and environmental sustainability goals as well as provide a roadmap on how to get there.”