“They’re the anchor on that end, and we’re the anchor on this end”
by Crystal Kotowski
Transitioning from an historic mining town to a ski town, Crested Butte has taken pride in redefining itself. But when it comes to an environmental footprint, the ski industry’s boots are heavy. Crested Butte Mountain Resort is not immune, and while its report card is mixed when it comes to its environmental footprint, partnerships with Western State Colorado University could help the ski resort improve its score, further benefitting the community, environment and its bottom line.
Western Masters in Environmental Management (MEM) professor Brooke Moran knew that several students in her ”Sustainability Coordinating and Consulting” course were currently working for CBMR, had in the past, or had a recreation background. As such, Moran approached CBMR to forge a partnership and the resort agreed.
Four MEM students are setting out to create the first phase of a Sustainability Strategic Plan (SSP) for CBMR, which has been a stated company value for years. “They took a triple bottom-line approach, wherein they attended to three integrated areas of sustainability: social, environmental, and economic. Given the constraints of the semester, they couldn’t tackle all facets of an SSP, so they focused on the critical areas of energy efficiency, waste, employee engagement, and marketing and communications,” said Moran.
CBMR has a strategic plan, but the SSP, for which the MEM students laid the foundation, delves deeper into the nuances of environmental factors, Moran said.
Mixed report card
The Ski Area Citizens Coalition’s most recent report card for Crested Butte Mountain Resort gives them a ‘C’ ranking overall, with a ‘D’ in habitat protection, an ‘A’ in watershed protection, a ‘C’ in addressing climate change, and an ‘A” in environmental policies and practices.
The coalition rates all of the resorts in the United States for sustainability, based on 35 environmental criteria.
Thanks to the interest of WSCU’s MEM students, the resort now has new ways to look at its footprint, addressing some of the greatest challenges nearly all ski resorts face—from extensive water and energy use to fuel snowmaking, ski lifts, lodges, maintenance equipment and the thousands of water bottles that make their way from local groceries to the lodges, to habitat fragmentation from ski area expansion and communicating mindful environmental behavior to guests.
Internships, master’s projects and class projects have been the result, too, of professors and students looking up-valley for real-world learning experiences and impact.
“They’re the anchor on that end, and we’re the anchor on this end. Western brings a lot to the table as part of academia to give us a different perspective,” confirmed CBMR vice president Erica Mueller.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Since 2008, CBMR has reduced its mountain operations greenhouse gas emissions by 39 percent resort wide; it attributes the reduction largely to energy-efficient equipment upgrades and energy conservation outreach efforts. This is CBMR’s second year utilizing an intern from Western to assess energy consumption and facility inefficiencies.
“We wanted to build on what the first intern had built, keeping the energy record updated and to measure trends. Rich Stromberg, our new intern, is looking at the facilities, especially at the base area at the different buildings, to get an assessment of where we’re using energy and how to become more efficient,” said CBMR director of planning Matt Feier. Stromberg has been working two days a week crunching numbers since November and will continue until March.
Feier confirmed that CBMR has talked with Gunnison County Electric Association about renewable energy, but it would rather leave proposal development to them. “We’re happy to be on board and ride that momentum; but we’re not in the business of producing solar energy,” said Feier.
“Our focus right now is how to be more efficient on the resort. We have a lot of room to improve with our older facilities,” Mueller added.
CBMR is looking into several grant opportunities, one of which would be an in-depth study of whether solar energy would pair well with standard lift operations. CBMR is also assessing the benefits of lighting upgrades. “I’ve done analysis on the timing and cost effectiveness—at what rate to invest in upgrades and at what time [staff is available] to do the switch-outs. There are different paybacks. We’ll look at costs to reduce heat loss, including pleated blinds, curtains, glass. Right now I’ve been working on getting the heat loads of the buildings. Then you start getting into more expensive things, like changing windows and insulation,” stated Stromberg.
Resort expansion and wildlife impacts
The Ski Area Citizens Coalition’s most severe rating for CBMR was for habitat protection, noting the expansion of real estate and lodging, and the ski area expansion’s potential impact on critical habitat.
As stated in its Master Development Plan adopted by the USFS in 2013, CBMR has proposed new summer and winter recreation developments within its permit boundary and expanding the permitted ski area boundary by 500 acres of forested habitat in the Teo-2 Bowl area. As ski resorts in Colorado are located on U.S. Forest Service land, an Environmental Impact Statement is being prepared.
“The interesting thing about the coalition is their poor grades for ski expansion; that’s directly correlated to CBMR here. The design plan is pretty considerate of wildlife. There will be some trails at the bottom—most of it is gladed, which requires a minimal amount of grooming. As far as ski area expansion goes, it’s about as minimally impactful as possible. It’s really one lift going into the drainage,” Mueller said.
This area is suitable Canada lynx habitat and provides habitat for their primary prey, the snowshoe hare. Canada lynx is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. One graduate student is analyzing the potential impacts of recreation on these species.
“There is little to almost no research and understanding on how outdoor recreation on public lands impacts wildlife,” noted MEM graduate student Rebecca Stern. “Section 7A1 of the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to use their authorities to implement actions that further the conservation of listed species.”
For her master’s project, Stern is assessing snowshoe hare occupancy and abundance, which is lynx’s main source of prey, ultimately providing scientific contributions to help inform how USFS manages and supports multiple uses of the forest to benefit people and federally listed species.
“Snowshoe hare are adapted to require a certain vegetative composition/forest structure. Ski resorts manipulate this vegetative structure to build lifts and create gladed terrain. Habitat manipulation is what I ultimately see as the biggest issue,” explained Stern.
Stern developed her research project by looking at previous snowshoe hare pellet survey studies, consulting with experts in the field in both the United States and Canada, and through the guidance of her community sponsor, Matt Vasquez with the USFS wildlife biologists in Gunnison and her MEM advisor, Dr. Jonathan Coop. Stern is unaware of any duplicate study, so cannot look to other ski resorts for a feasible study format.
Said Stern, “I think it is important for people to realize and understand that they are recreating in a space that is something else’s home. While they are hiking, biking, or skiing, there is a deer, bear, fox, hare, or even a lynx nearby trying to forage, stay safe from threats, and raise their young. Ski resorts should do more to educate visitors on what wildlife they are sharing their play space with and why it is important that we try to minimize our impacts to their environment. Really driving home the importance of keeping wildlife wild and giving them their space can help create good public land stewards in Crested Butte’s visitors and residents.”
In 2008, CBMR launched a resort-wide recycling program, working with a local waste management startup and purchasing its own industrial cardboard compactors and recycling collectors. Currently, CBMR recycles more than half of the waste generated at the resort; the major gap is from guest impacts.
MEM graduate student Casey Hess is focusing her master’s project on building a waste management regime for CBMR to develop “guest inclusion pathways,” or crafting sustainability outreach to guests through existing communication outlets. Hess is also working on developing internal plans and suggestions for adjustments in how the resort houses and disposes of divertible waste, which includes any materials that are recyclable, compostable, recoverable and/or reusable.
“What I hope to achieve is to calculate returns on investments for in-room recycling bins. I also hope to calculate a return on investment for a recycling compactor. In conjunction with the calculations, I will be conducting waste audits approximately two times per month until early April on CBMR properties to get a real idea of what they experience in the waste stream and the potential for waste diversion,” said Hess.
Hess wants to make recycling as easy as possible for guests and is utilizing her experiences working for Crested Butte Lodging and skiing abroad in Europe—as well as her interviews from other ski resorts—to guide her recommendations.
“I think now is the time for CBMR to capitalize on what they’ve got: a killer resort with some amazing terrain, a solid community ethic, amazing staff from CEOs to lift operators to line cooks to bellmen. It’s not yet a metric for success, which would be amazing to study, but CBMR has an opportunity to leverage a reputation for being an exceptional mountain town that is also doing its best to be sustainable, which has the potential to influence brand loyally,” said Hess.
Feier noted that CBMR intends to launch some pilot projects regarding guest engagement this winter.
Uncertainty plagues both climactic models and the political climate, exacerbating the capacity of citizens to protect our winters. However, Mueller is certain that the passion and expertise from WSCU are fostering CBMR’s ability to help guests ski lightly. “Without the passion from Western—Rebecca, Casey and Professor Moran sought me out—much of this wouldn’t be happening,” said Feier.
And it is certain that guests and shareholders alike will have expectations of environmental standards. “In 2016, the Harvard Business Review found that the largest number of shareholder resolutions filed by investors—the method through which activists work—now concern social and environmental issues. This is a recent phenomenon; the number of these resolutions has increased dramatically over the past five years. This new insight suggests that we’ll see more and more businesses fostering sustainability, and we already know that consumers are demanding more and more that businesses operate responsibly,” concluded Moran.
And with the help of the MEM program, CBMR is in the process of actively raising its environmental profile.