How the Green Mountain State is doing more to lessen the enviro footprint of its resorts. By Tim Shuff.
When my friends and I set out to make our annual ski trip as eco-friendly as possible, our line of thinking went like this: ski travel is sort of like air conditioning. In climate change terms, burning more energy to crank the AC, travelling farther in search of good snow – these are not good long-term solutions. But short of staying home, is there such a thing as an environmentally friendly ski trip?
We decided to try Vermont. Living in Southern Ontario, we figured the Green Mountains qualify as “local.” And even though flying has a massive impact, the 500km flight from Toronto to Burlington, Vermont, is shorter than most – just 70 minutes on Porter Airlines’ relatively fuel-efficient Bombardier Q400 turboprop. And from Burlington you can shuttle to four area resorts, making the trip completely car-free. When the biggest snow dump in five years arrived on the eve of our departure, cancelling our flights, it brought an unexpected bonus. Carpooling is a lot more fuel-efficient than flying. A desperate overnight road trip cut our trip’s carbon emissions in half (the same effect it had on the length of our first ski day).
Fly or drive, with vertical to rival the west, three times as much natural snow as home (less energy running snow guns), and less than a fifth the travel distance of a trip to the Rockies, Vermont seemed like a good compromise. We weren’t disappointed. While ski resorts everywhere are trying to lessen their environmental footprint, those independent-minded Vermonters go the extra mile to make sustainability a way of living and doing business. At Stowe Mountain Resort, our first stop, we found the new Spruce Peak base development is the world’s first mountain resort to earn Audubon International’s Green Community Award. Our hotel, Topnotch Resort & Spa, started a program for area hotels to donate one dollar per night’s stay to the Stowe Land Trust, which has preserved 3,500 acres around Stowe. From its indoor and outdoor hot tubs with bar service you can unwind and enjoy the view of the majesty you’re helping to preserve.
Down the road in the Mad River Valley it’s much the same. Sugarbush is one of three Vermont resorts to join the National Ski Areas Association’s voluntary Climate Challenge program, taking concrete steps to inventory and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The ski industry is progressive on climate change because it’s got a lot to lose. A University of New Hampshire study found that every bad snow year costs the U.S. ski industry $800 million. During the winter of 2012, the fourth-warmest on record, skier visits were down 15 percent nationwide. All this is propelling some remarkable innovations – like Killington’s recent announcement that it’s powering one of its lifts with cow manure from local dairy farms.
Smugglers’ Notch, the last resort we visited, showed the most environmental leadership. Dan Maxon, manager of the resort’s environmental initiatives, spoke frankly about the downsides. For snowmaking alone they burn through two 7,000-gallon tanker trucks of diesel a week. But he was also proud of what they’ve accomplished – like making more snow than ever with less power. Smuggs has been constructing all its resort buildings to meet Vermont’s highest efficiency standards since 1996, and has been an early adopter of everything from recycling to biodiesel and solar power. It even operates a RideShare website.
All operations are guided by an environmental policy, which includes a commitment to raising the environmental awareness of guests through programs like nature walks, moonlight snowshoe hikes and zipline tree canopy tours. Guests go home inspired to make a difference. I know that’s how we felt, especially after taking in the après-ski farm-to-table scene, which Vermonters have made into something of a religion. They should call it farm-to-pint-glass, too. Vermont is one of the few states where it’s legal to taste and purchase alcoholic beverages at farmer’s markets. Microbreweries and distilleries abound, with 15 craft distilleries and counting, processing everything from local sugar beets to honey and maple syrup into spirits of distinct terroir. The Boston Globe recently named waterbury, the town we dined in near Stowe, the “best beer town in New England,” though it might be the best in the world.
Prohibition Pig, a southern-barbecue themed joint downtown, credits its source farms right on the menu. Like many of the good restaurants and inns, it’s a member of the Vermont Fresh Network, which promotes local food. On tap are the famous beers of The Alchemist, the Waterbury brewery whose Heady Topper IPA was ranked the world’s third-best beer, and Hill Farmstead, a converted woodshed in nearby Greensboro that was recently named the best brewery in the world by Ratebeer.com. If you want to buy Hill Farmstead beer outside of the few restaurants that serve it, you have to go to Greensboro, refillable growler in hand, and get in line at the tap before they sell out. “We are part of a neo-American ideal, which is the opposite of infinite, boundless growth,” mused the cerebral brewmaster Shaun Hill in an interview with Vanity Fair last spring, capturing in one sentence why he doesn’t just grow his business to satiate demand, and why his product is so damned good.
Hill’s philosophy sums up the zeitgeist we encountered in restaurants and lift lines all over northern Vermont – a celebration of place and realignment of life’s priorities along the lines of: Ski, eat, drink and live. It’s a lesson hard to quantify in tonnes of CO2, but a step in the right direction, and one worth travelling for.