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Jeff Grasser, a sustainability manager for Copper Mountain, leads a group tour above the resort’s Center Village during the Conservation Summit on July 27, 2022. A group of ski area sustainability managers gathered at the resort to trade climate action ideas. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Ski area officials in the West know they will lose up to 25% more of their snowpack between now and 2050, after suffering through 20% losses already in a decadeslong drought. 

Through snowmaking from local river water and isolated geographic luck, Colorado ski areas have managed so far to avoid devastating impacts from climate change and drought. But their margin to keep doing so is thinning.

Copper Mountain believes the industry needs to push back on climate change, one seed at a time. 

The Summit County resort has committed to an academic study of its slopeside reseeding efforts using hardy local plants, hoping to put solid numbers to assumptions that ski trails denuded of carbon-eating trees can still contribute to carbon sequestration by growing the right flowers and grasses. 

Some climate scientists advocate countering the temperature-increasing growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by growing more carbon-storing trees and plants, or injecting industrial-produced carbon directly underground. 

Copper Mountain hosted a climate change summit last week to trade ideas and launch the academic forces on its slopes, with a researcher and students from Southwestern University staking out test plots near American Eagle lift. Copper has previously sent employees and volunteers to gather seeds of hardy, adaptable plants in the county and planting them on the slopes.

Now the researchers will measure an unenhanced plot to calculate how much carbon it sequesters in roots and plant growth, and compare it to newly reseeded plots and any additional carbon they manage to store. 

With most major ski areas now employing sustainability coordinators, the efforts are signals within the industry that resorts can’t just count on more snowmaking or higher trails in new basins to guarantee winter runs. They must be part of the global picture of temperature reduction through reducing carbon emission by sequestration on the slopes, buying clean electricity for lifts, and recycling more. 

“I believe that we need an additional conversation at the table. And that’s about what we can do at the local level,” said Jeff Grasser, Copper’s senior resort operations and sustainability manager. 

“There’s two pieces to keeping the future of skiing going,” Grasser said. “We can divert nothing from our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and to help others reduce their carbon footprint on a global scale. And then we need additional effort to redouble what we can do at the local level, to help our ecosystems get through this time of climate change.”

Jeff Grasser, a sustainability manager for Copper Mountain, leads a group tour above the resort’s Center Village during the Conservation Summit on July 27, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Grasser organized the ideas summit that included representatives from Utah’s Snowbird ski area, the U.S. Forest Service, which leases most of the land ski areas use, and nonprofits like Blue River Watershed Group. The National Ski Areas Association provided a grant and joined the summit as well. 

A study published in October in “Nature Reviews: Earth and Environment” by researchers from western states said trends “suggest ~35-60 years before low to no snow becomes persistent if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.”

Snowpack-melting dust layers blow in more frequently as the West suffers through a 22-year “megadrought.” Anecdotal impacts on local ski areas pile up: Crested Butte, usually humming by Dec. 1, reported just two runs open that day in 2021, after its early season snowpack reached only half of normal.

Resorts like Copper Mountain have relatively senior water rights that will allow them to draw snowmaking water from mountain sources even during droughts, Blue River Watershed Group Executive Director Kendra Fuller noted. But the resorts are now aware that drawing all their rights in dry seasons can cause long-term damage to the ecosystem, she added. 

“All of us need to address the fact that we are not going to have the same flows that we’ve seen historically,” Fuller said. “And it’s going to take every single stakeholder, every single person working on water conservation in order to maintain any kind of flow in the river. The first thing that’s going to get cut is the easiest thing to get cut, and that’s usually the environment. And so it’s going to take not just ski areas, but all of us to look at what our new stream flows, what our new runoff season, are going to look like.”

Copper and other big ski resorts have been out front working on ecosystems and climate change, compared to some other large business interests, Fuller believes. Perhaps that’s because their main asset, snow, is so directly threatened. “They seem to be paying attention,” she said.

Copper’s expansion of its annual replanting program is an important step, Grasser said. For years, employees and volunteers have planted up to 16 species of hardy native grasses and flowers in areas disturbed by ski lift construction or other maintenance. Diversifying plant and tree resources makes Summit County more resilient to drought and to harmful explosions of pests, like pine beetles. 

But Grasser and others also believe Copper’s primary ski slopes, relatively undisturbed by building or planting for years, could do more to grow low-lying plants that absorb carbon and store it in the ground. The resort has worked with the Forest Service to pick promising species, and with a consultant and Southwestern University to plan a long-term study. 

“We don’t want to just say, hey, Colorado, take my word for it,” Grasser said. He hopes the study will eventually prove “that we’re going to make a meaningful difference to the amount of carbon that’s in the soil on the ski slopes at Copper Mountain.” 

Copper Mountain already contracts for cleaner electricity as part of its sustainability efforts. The resort also joined other entertainment venues recently in banning use of throwaway plastic cups that are hard to recycle. 

Summit County nonprofits will be ready to take any positive study results and spread those lessons  throughout the local ecosystem, Fuller said. 

“Their landscape is very similar to so many of our landscapes across the Summit County area,” she said. “So, if we can learn from them, then we can actually go to some of our larger ranches on the north end and ask them if they’re interested in implementing some of the same strategies to increase sequestration.” 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...