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Mitigation Over Litigation: Aspen's Environmental Success Story


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The tale of Crested Butte Resort and its desire to be a viable steward of the land, as well as a forward-thinking member of the community, represents a new level of public responsibility that ski areas across the country are embracing with open arms. In Aspen, where the sale of fur coats raised the hackles of animal rights activists a dozen years ago, the Aspen Skiing Company has taken a lead in showing the world how to be environmentally correct.

Three years ago, Aspen CEO Patrick O’Donnell, whose background includes a stint with outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, created the first administrative ski area position of Environmental Affairs Director. To demonstrate his sincerity, O’Donnell appointed Chris Lane, a staunch Sierra Club member, civic activist and frequent critic of the ski industry, to the new position.

Lane didn’t waste any time shaking things up. He began scouring Aspen’s purchasing contracts and discovered that the ski area was contributing to the decline of North Atlantic swordfish by serving it in its restaurants. So the company issued a directive to all of its on-mountain and hotel restaurants: Stop serving swordfish. Lane also asked other restaurants in the Roaring Fork Valley to join the boycott, and many of them did. “We want to see how we can leverage vendors, how we can get them to do green things,” says Lane.

Instead of devouring a threatened species, diners at any of Aspen Skiing Company’s four areas can support another threatened species-ranch lands-by ordering beef that is supplied from locally-raised, chemically-free cattle. Keeping ranches in production, says Lane, prevents them from being bulldozed for condominiums, homes or other development. Eat a burger, save a pasture.

Apart from largely symbolic gestures, the company has sunk its teeth into some tangible greening. Last summer Aspen went into the “deconstruction” business by recycling nearly 90 percent of the building materials that came from demolishing the Snowmass Lodge and Club, a hotel that is being converted to environmentally friendly, high-occupancy timeshare units. Scavenging through the rubble, work crews reclaimed concrete (which they crushed and reused as fill), some 4,000 pounds of aluminum and copper pipe, more than 60 cubic yards of wood and steel beams and interior materials such as plumbing and lighting fixtures, carpeting, doors, windows and miscellaneous furniture. Other wood scraps were pulverized into mulch.

Another deconstruction-this time of the Sundeck Restaurant at the top of Aspen Mountain-reclaimed 65 percent of the materials. The company intends to replace it with a building that uses renewable energy sources such as wind power, non-toxic adhesives and paints, recycled carpet and recycled wood. Lane hopes that the new Sundeck will be among the first 25 buildings in the country to be “certified green” under a new rating system developed by the construction industry, called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). The ski company has been formally accepted as a “LEED Pioneer” to help develop the program.

Aspen’s new consciousness is reflected in virtually every one of its departments. Employees donate $1 a week to an environmental fund, which is matched by contributions from the company and from the Aspen Foundation. Thus far, a kitty of more than $100,000 has been divvied up among wetlands development, environmental education in schools, water protection projects and trail restorations.

Other programs in Aspen’s green campaign include the installation of a wind-powered surface lift called the Cirque-the first of its kind in the country-and a state-of-the-art computer system that monitors and adjusts energy consumption among lifts and snowmaking pumps.

While local enviros initially greeted Aspen’s new policies with skepticism, they soon became believers. Sloan Shoemaker, Conservation Director for the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, wrote O’Donnell earlier this year that he no longer coonsiders the campaign to be a “cynical greenwashing ploy” but rather “a strong indication of a paradigm shift.” The Aspen Skiing Company, says Shoemaker, “has genuinely evolved as a company.”

At most mountain resorts, finding gold nuggets is easier than finding words of praise from conservationists. But at Lake Tahoe, Heavenly Ski Resort is basking in the success of a strong community engagement policy that has allowed the ski area to win approval of its long-range master plan from the U.S. Forest Service, all without a single appeal-a feat almost unheard of in litigious-happy California. But the process wasn’t a cakewalk. The ski area spent 8 years negotiating, and often compromising, with a variety of local interest groups, including the influential League to Save Lake Tahoe and the bi-state regulatory entity known as the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA).

Their biggest challenge was how to deal with the sins of the past, including unsophisticated construction practices that resulted in clear-cutting, erosion and pollution of the lake. Those evils were hardly unique to ski areas, since housing and condominium builders contribute their share of contaminates and aesthetic disasters.

Heavenly knew that in order to expand the resort it would have to be part of the solution to South Shore’s problems. It soon became the focal point of a coordinated, regional plan that would shift the primary entry point for skiers to the Stateline area, encourage use of alternative transportation (including a new access gondola) and replace ramshackle motels and shops with an upscale village.

As part of its mitigation for new lifts and trails, Heavenly created freshwater marshes along alpine streams, obliterated old logging roads, reseeded exposed runs, built rock supports to stabilize slopes, and identified important wildlife foraging areas so that they could be avoided in future construction. During a severe mid-Nineties drought that killed thousands of evergreens throughout Tahoe, Heavenly’s trees stood tall and healthy, largely because the resort was able to irrigate slopes by using water from its own mountain reservoirs.

The ski area’s willingness to be proactive, rather than reactive, in improving the quality of life at South Shore undoubtedly contributed to its high standing in the community. “We have seen Heavenly willing to make significant investments in environmental improvements, and from our perspective that is the most important part of the process,” says Rochelle Nason, executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe.

This collective effort hasn’t gone unnoticed at the highest levels of government. Two years ago President Clinton, Vice-President Gore, several senators and a half-dozen Cabinet members made an unprecedented visit to Lake Tahoe, first to commend the area’s efforts and, second, to pledge federal support, including funds, to help clean up the lake. Subsequently, bills have been introduced in Congress to designate all federal lands around the lake as the “Lake Tahoe National Scenic Forest and Recreation Area.”

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