Snow Job?

Carbon offsets are cool, but they don't really make ski resorts eco-friendly. So says the Aspen Skiing Company's Auden Schendler—whether the rest of the ski industry likes it or not.

HIGH PROFILE GREENING: Aspen Ski Resort leads the way in eco-friendliness     Photo: courtesy, Aspen Snowmass

THE DEDICATION of the solar array, it must be said, rocked. On a bluebird July day at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, in Carbondale, there was straw underfoot and puffy clouds above, building over Mount Sopris. There was Budweiser and bluegrass, golden retrievers and Garfield County commissioners, the full complement of ranchers and yoginis and climbers and candidates from this mini-Boulder on the Western Slope. And there, behind the stage, was the shiny new 147-kilowatt array—nine banks of 84 solar panels each, tilted toward the southern sun.

"You're obviously way ahead of the game when it comes to the new energy economy," Colorado governor Bill Ritter told the crowd. "As we pulled in, solar panels were being installed at a townhouse across from this. I said, 'Either that's the best job of staging or this town really is committed to installing solar.' "

Actually, the array is the $1.1 million baby of the town, the school, Xcel Energy, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, and the Aspen Skiing Company, 30 miles up the Roaring Fork Valley. The town and CORE had the idea; the school provided the land; and the SkiCo put up the money to finance the project. The setup will generate an annual 210,000 kilowatt-hours. The school will use a third of that power, and the rest will be sold back to the grid—giving the SkiCo a modest return on its investment.

"We understand that it's our responsibility to find cleaner ways to power our lifts," said Mike Kaplan, Aspen's athletic, 44-year-old CEO, from the podium. Reducing energy consumption is important, he explained, "for our own environmental sustainability, and now, with the price of oil and all the other factors, it's for our own economic viability."

Watching all this from beside the stage was Auden Schendler, the brash force behind the SkiCo's relentless environmental push. Now, as the band packed up and the demo electric car scooted away, he handed his one-year-old son, Elias, off to his wife, Ellen, and headed over for an interview with the cable channel Plum TV. The whole project was so ambitious, the reporter said; what was a ski resort doing installing a $1.1 million solar array?

"Might as well go big or go home," Schend­ler replied.

FOR THE RECORD, Auden Schendler's shorts are not all that short. I'd been warned at the solar dedication that I'd better be prepared when I showed up at the SkiCo's offices in Aspen the next morning. "He'll show you around in his short shorts," brand-development director Steve Metcalf had said, striking a few manly-man poses. "Yeah, they're not all the way short," said a PR consultant, laughing. "But they're definitely mid-short."

The shorts, it turned out, are stiff seventies-style canvas hikers possessed of a certain heroic Dudley Do-Right practicality, much like Schendler himself. As the SkiCo's executive director of environmental affairs since 2001, Schendler has emerged as the industry's most visible environmental gadfly, and the man who's led Aspen's relentless push toward more forward-thinking projects. In 2004, the SkiCo became the first ski resort to gain ISO 14001 certification, meaning its operations meet green guidelines set by the International Organization for Standardization. It started the Save Snow campaign to encourage activism; created an Environment Foundation, through which its employees have donated more than $1 million to local projects; installed real-time energy-monitoring software; and stopped buying Kleenex for its four ski areas—Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass—because the brand refused to quit using virgin paper from endangered forests. As other resorts rush to follow Aspen's lead, Schendler is, in effect, setting the environmental agenda for the entire industry.

Yet his mouth has gotten him into trouble, specifically when he has very publicly criticized his own company's environmental progress, suggesting that all its efforts have basically been for naught. Schendler can be shockingly honest about the challenges green companies face, to a point that can confuse his co-workers and annoy his competitors. More than once, his bosses, who support his particularly rabid brand of corporate accountability, have fended off other resort managers asking someone to put a muzzle on the guy.

I get a sense of Schendler's boundless enthusiasm as I follow him on his rounds. Tall, blond, and fit at 38, Schendler is both hyper-smart and hyperactive, showing off his projects like a ten-year-old with a science kit. I chase after him as he lopes from office to ski run to sports club in pursuit of eco-infractions and more caffeine.

"Oops! Look at this—60 watts," Schendler says of a light fixture at the Snowmass Club. "Someone replaced the fluorescents. How do you keep that from happening?" On the new tennis-court lighting: "This is actually a failure that remains a failure." On the ladies' room at the bottom of Snowmass's Elk Camp gondola: "See, she's going to leave the light on, and it will be on all summer." And on the micro-hydroelectric system he built on Snowmass's Fanny Hill in 2004: "This is probably the coolest thing I've ever been involved with."

The system funnels spring runoff down a snowmaking pipe, through a turbine, and back into the creek. It cost $150,000 and produces 150,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, with $10,000 worth sold back to the grid—and its profitability paved the way for another, bigger hydro plant on Aspen Mountain and three possible wind turbines on Snowmass. It took years of technical disasters, budget overruns, and, as Schendler calls them, "Soviet-style" bureaucratic hoops to make it happen. In that sense, the project is a perfect example of a Schendler success: great once it's done but such a massive headache in the making that few companies would've green-lighted it.

Part of Aspen's willingness to take risks is cultural; in a building full of young sports nuts and creative types, employees like to say that "the inmates are running the asylum." Schendler, a New Jersey native who graduated from Bowdoin College in 1992 with a degree in biology and environmental studies, is a kayaker who's also summited Mount McKinley. He worked for Outward Bound, and as a researcher at the Rocky Mountain Institute, under green-business guru Amory Lovins, before starting at the SkiCo. CEO Kaplan was a ski instructor in Taos, New Mexico, until he got his M.B.A. from the University of Denver. Matt Jones, 39, the CFO whose acrobatic number crunching made the array possible, is a former backup singer who drinks bourbon with Schendler every Friday.It also helps to have billionaire backers who believe green innovation is good business. Aspen is owned by the Chicago-based investment firm Henry Crown and Company, whose president, Jim Crown, has long overseen the resort's drive for sustainability. In 1994, Crown hired Kaplan's predecessor, Pat O'Donnell, who'd worked at Patagonia. "I give Pat a lot of credit," he says, "for saying 'This has to be part of how we live our lives. Also, we need snow, and global warming is the enemy of, among other things, robust winters.' "

To combat that enemy, they've unleashed Schendler, an energy vortex in his own right. "I tried decaf," he tells me at one point. He was miserable. "So I asked myself, 'Do I want to live a decaf life?' "

The answer, clearly, was no.

BACK IN THE OFFICE, Schendler dives into the day's challenge: biodiesel. The SkiCo got lots of attention in 2002 when it decided—at his urging—to run its Sno-Cats on B20. But now he wants to go back to using regular diesel. It's become cleaner, and biofuels, because they rely on land that could be used to grow edible crops, may contribute to the global food crisis. Schendler and vice president of marketing Jeanne Mackowski are discussing ads to explain the change in policy.

"What do you do?" Schendler says. "For us to continue to use biodiesel when it doesn't do environmental good, just because we have that message out there—3we can't do that and stay true to any level of integrity."

For this reason, Schendler also rethought his position on renewable-energy credits. Despite having convinced the company to invest in them heavily in 2006, he believes that RECs do little to encourage new clean-energy development. Last year, in fact, he wrote a letter to the California-based Center for Resource Solutions, calling RECs about as meaningful as trading "rocks, IOUs, or pine cones." Now the SkiCo has phased them out.

This can be maddening for other resorts. They're out there buying RECs as fast as they can, trying to keep up with eco-leaders like Aspen. Meanwhile, Schendler is totally over RECs, and on to things like endorsing a progressive candidate for the local utility board and filing amicus curiae briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court. The SkiCo did that last April in Massachusetts v. EPA, in which the court ruled that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases should be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act. Schendler calls this his single biggest accomplishment and has little patience for those flummoxed by his evolving stands. "My response is kind of an annoyed 'Oh, you thought this was going to be easy?' " he says. "This is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. It's an absolute fricking mess."

But even Schendler would say the industry is making headway. Jackson Hole has become ISO 14001–certified. Vail aims to reduce energy use by 10 percent in the next two years. Tiny Massachusetts resort Jiminy Peak has built a $4 million, 1.5-megawatt wind turbine to provide almost half its power. California's Kirkwood Mountain Resort is building not one wind turbine but 20. And the nonpartisan National Ski Areas Association has lobbied Congress in support of the Lieberman- Warner Climate Security Act. According to the association's 2008 Sustainable Slopes report, 68 of the 180 ski areas participating in the voluntary program are offsetting at least some of their greenhouse-gas emissions.

Some would argue that this is putting lipstick on a pig. Name another sport with as much impact on public lands—clear-cut runs, heavy machinery, millions of schussers in the wilderness in winter. And for every ton of carbon saved by an energy-conscious Aspen or Vail or Telluride, you could point to another planeload of jet fuel burned to get there and another new forest of fudge shoppes and condos in what used to be elk habitat.

"There are a lot of things they're doing well, but you cannot deny the long-term and permanent impacts of the industry," says Myke Bybee, a public-lands specialist at the Sierra Club. "Most ski resorts make their money nowadays not on lift tickets but on real estate. So now you've got sprawling developments in what used to be a sleepy mountain town."

The industry's harshest critic may be the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition, run by Durango-based nonprofit Colorado Wild. Each fall, the group releases a scorecard that rates dozens of the country's 481 operating resorts on their eco-performance, handing out grades from zero to 100. The 2008 valedictorian: Aspen Mountain, with an 88.9. Class dunce: Copper Mountain, scoring 29.

"The major impact that ski resorts have is on the immediate environment, not on the overall climate, and I don't see a lot going on in that respect," says Hunter Sykes, who coordinates the scorecard. "Everything is focused on energy consumption and maybe a little recycling here and there."

For example, he says, Vail Resorts, which owns Breckenridge and a host of other western ski areas, is making progress on energy issues. But their real estate arm is "building, building, building, bringing more and more people, bringing more traffic, so you have water-quality issues, air-quality issues, and what is literally urban sprawl in a rural, pristine environment."

The NSAA defends that expansion, pointing to the 2007–08 season's record 60.5 million skier/snowboarder visits, and resort higher-ups are adamant, too. "A view that says that any growth is bad is obviously not something I can subscribe to," says Vail's CEO, Rob Katz, "[but] if we're going to add a new development, like we're doing at Ever Vail, we're going to make it LEED-certified. Yeah, we're going to be environmentally responsible and socially conscious, but always in a way that still provides guests with what they want—because that's the business we're in."

Compared with other major resorts, the SkiCo's involvement in real estate has been limited, and it makes a huge point of building green—putting solar panels on the Little Nell hotel and working with an outside company, Related WestPac, to ensure that the billion-dollar redevelopment of Snowmass Base Village is LEED certified. But with its Fendi boutiques and jet-setting clientele, Aspen attracts a special brand of criticism.

"There is an obvious tension," says Jim Crown. "We are expecting a certain amount of energy to be consumed—a certain amount of carbon to be released—in order to operate our business. We aspire to have a stable and successful business. So what do we do to keep that reasonable?"

It's a question Schendler struggles with too. "Do you say, 'You can ski, but you can't have a luxury condo'?" he asks. "Where do you draw the line? 'You can't ski, but you can kayak. No, you can't kayak, because of the shuttle.' We have to fix the whole system, so that when you ski, there's a limited carbon footprint."

"In a sustainable world," he adds, with his typical over-the-top candor, "you're probably not going to fly or ski all that much. But in the interim…"

SCHENDLER IS UNAFRAID to sound off, no matter the occasion. In 2006, the SkiCo took heat after he wrote an antidevelopment letter to The Aspen Times, criticizing an expansion plan at the Roaring Fork Club, a private resort in nearby Basalt. After he and Robert Redford won Climate Protection Awards from the EPA in May 2007, they slammed their benefactor in High Country News. "That's right," they wrote. "We have just won a climate award from an agency that had to be sued to act on climate change." And in a business panel at the 2008 Aspen Environment Forum, he mocked corporate sustainability reports for putting a rosy spin on things. "What's on the cover?" he asked. "An elk?A mountain?We put trash on ours!"

All this boiled over in October 2007, when he was profiled in a BusinessWeek cover story. Under the headline "Little Green Lies," the magazine spotlighted him as someone loudly debunking the idea that "making a company environmentally friendly can be not just cost-effective but profitable." He sounded off about "foot-dragging colleagues" more interested in buying guest linens or a new lift than in investing in renewable energy. And while Aspen's carbon footprint was going down, he said, its energy use was still rising, albeit at a much lower rate. "Who are we kidding?" he asked. "I've succeeded in doing a lot of sexy projects, yet utterly failed in what I set out to do. How do you really green your company? It's almost f------ impossible."

The next Monday, Schendler came to work to find his office had been cleared out.

This was a prank, of course—the article had also described him as "tanned and muscular," inspiring his colleagues to paste a shot of Schendler's head onto a photo of a bodybuilder and stick it on the door. But he got a deeper message. "The BusinessWeek thing was very serious, partly because Jim Crown saw it and was like 'What the hell's going on?'"

His comments were all about credibility, he insists, and in line with his belief that self-criticism is the only road to environmental integrity. "I thought everyone understood what I was doing," he says. "Because I'm so steeped in this field, I know that honesty and transparency are the keystones."

His supervisors were a little freaked out at first. "This whole transparency thing—we thought we were being transparent. But Auden took it to another level," says Kaplan, "and as we've had more interactions with people on the forefront of the green movement, they thought it was right on the mark."

Though the company has had his back all along, Schendler toned things down. "The thing is, it did silence me," he says. "You just can't be that guy all the time, dissing the company. Nobody's going to want you around."

Of course, he still has just a few more things to say. In March, PublicAffairs will publish his first book, Getting Green Done: Hard Truths and Real Solutions from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution. It's "witty and contrarian," according to publicity materials, answering questions like "Fluorescent bulbs might be better for our atmosphere, but what do you say to the boutique hotel owner who thinks they detract from his?"

Meanwhile, Schendler is doing less lightbulb wrangling and more wider-reaching projects like the amicus brief. "It's like the sheriff in No Country for Old Men," he says. "I'm tired of the microbattle. I'm moving in a broader policy direction."

And, in a twist that has surprised even Schendler, such big-think has led this coffee-jonesing atheist to the biggest-thinknotion of all: religion. What he sees as our moral imperative to fight climate change has sparked in him a practical-minded new spirituality, one that only adds fuel to his eco-battle. "What if I gave you an opportunity to address poverty, clean water, disease, and pollution in one?" he asks. "If you solve climate change, you solve all these issues. It becomes this unbelievably powerful opportunity for meaning in our lives. We gotta go for it. It's in our human nature."

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