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Ski communities join forces on climate-change solutions

'Ultimately, we will resolve this as a collective'

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There was a time not all that long ago when ski resorts kept their environmental initiatives close to the chest.

It was just another way to gain an edge over the competition, to win the all-important PR battle. But with decreasing snowfall and shortening winter seasons, the mountain communities on the frontlines of global warming have realized it's easier to work together than go head-to-head.

"We've kind of become grown-ups recognizing that we have this enormous issue, climate change, which is a societal threat and a threat to our ski industry, that we need to tackle together, and I'm just so appreciative to see the willingness within our industry to share ideas and projects very openly," said Arthur DeJong, environmental resource manager for Whistler Blackcomb (WB). "Ultimately, we will resolve this as a collective."

One prime example of these collaborative efforts is the Climate Challenge, a voluntary program spearheaded by the U.S. National Ski Areas Association dedicated to helping ski resorts reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016, 37 ski areas took part, including Whistler Blackcomb.

With Vail Resorts' recent $1.4-billion purchase of WB, the former industry rivals are now getting on the same page when it comes to reducing their operating footprint. The bulk of any ski resort's energy use comes from the intensive process of snowmaking, and Vail is always looking for new technologies to increase efficiencies. De Jong said the Colorado-based company has recently installed satellite-tracking systems to its fleet of snowcats that give precise, real-time data to operators.

"The snow sat system can tell the groomer within almost three centimetres how much snow he has under his cat. So when you don't have a lot of snow and you're trying to cover a run, that's very helpful," De Jong explained. "This technology is already out there and we're studying it, and I think sooner rather than later we'll be applying it."

Last year, Whistler Blackcomb brought in a fleet of energy-efficient groomers of its own, the PistenBully 600 E+, which uses a hybrid diesel-electric engine that has the potential for a 40-per-cent reduction in fuel efficiency. Although the model's trial run at WB hit a snag — the cat didn't handle Whistler's wet, spring snow well — De Jong said the resort is working with the manufacturer and expects "it's only a matter of time" before it's added to the fleet.

It's not just ski resorts heading the charge either; local governments in mountain towns have long been thought leaders in environmental initiatives. With hundreds of solar panels installed on city facilities, an ambitious energy-efficiency program and a stable of zero-emission electric buses on the horizon, Park City, Utah earlier this year committed to achieving 100-per-cent renewable energy by 2032. Aspen, Colo., meanwhile, made waves last year when it became just the third U.S. city to run entirely on renewable energy. The City of Aspen's electric system uses 46-per-cent hydroelectric, 53-per-cent wind and one-per-cent landfill gas.

David Hornbacher, Aspen's director of environmental initiatives, said it's imperative that mountain towns provide a model for other communities to follow.

"One of the mottos that we try to live by here in this organization is local action, global results," he said. "If we can go out and try something new and different, make it useful and show a path for others, hopefully that inspires them to do something different to really extend and to push far beyond their current limit."

In B.C., where hydroelectric power is king, Whistler already has a headstart on its goal of achieving 100-per-cent renewable energy by 2060. But the problem locally remains passenger vehicles, which account for nearly 60 per cent of the town's greenhouse gas emissions.

"If we can take a look at what some of the barriers to transit are, and make it easier, cheaper and faster for people to take the preferred modes of transportation, then we might start to see a difference," said Whistler Coun. Sue Maxwell.

Aspen offers eight free shuttles aimed at lowering traffic, including the new Downtowner that allows users to request a ride anywhere from the Roaring Fork River to the base of Ajax Mountain using a mobile app.

"It's been extremely well used and it's really helpful for those that actually live here in Aspen," Hornbacher said." It wasn't exclusively for tourism, it was really to help out our local population to move around and enjoy Aspen."

Maxwell sees transportation as the biggest piece of the puzzle if Whistler wants to meet its renewable goals.

"I think we should be working on conserving as much energy as possible to free up energy for the shift over to electric vehicles," she said. "Having car-charging stations, and having a system that makes it as easy as possible for people to use non-fossil-fuel-based transportation, that's where it might make sense as a municipality to be looking at how that system works."

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