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Southwestern University science students Logan Antone, left, and Cooper Phillips gather soil samples from a plot on Copper Mountain's Formidable ski run as professor Jennie DeMarco explains a 10-year carbon sequestration project. In the background, machines are clearing land for the luxury Born Mountain Club project, with a hotel, condos and slopeside homes. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

COPPER MOUNTAIN — The Texas college students carefully charted the greenery on the ski slope and bagged soil samples as part of a multiyear study that will map out strategies for increasing biodiversity at ski areas. 

Several earthmovers growled in the background, scraping several acres of undeveloped land to make room for a private club, boutique hotel, condos and slopeside homes. 

“It’s hard not to notice that, isn’t it?” said Sheehan Meagher, a soil technician with the White River National Forest who was attending a conservation summit for ski resort sustainability leaders. “Maybe that is an example of where we are and where we are going? Hopefully.”

Copper Mountain has identified 558 acres on the front side of its ski area where soil work can help restore ecosystems and improve biodiversity to help lessen the snow-stealing blow of climate change. Last year the resort announced a 10-year carbon sequestration plan to plant carbon-storing plants and grasses on its ski slopes. The resort has tapped researchers at Southwestern University in Texas in the effort, with student scientists staking out test plots on five ski runs where they can monitor vegetation growth using native seeds, compost and biochar.

The ski area hosted several resort leaders at its second-annual conservation summit earlier this month in an effort to share their research, strategies and projects. A large focus was restoring biological vibrancy on ski slopes, which too often are simply treated like lawns instead of critical components of mountain ecosystems. Last year sustainability workers at Copper Mountain started collecting seeds from 27 native species and replanting them across the resort’s north-facing ski runs.

“We are experimenting. We are trying to figure out how to make all this work at a landscape level,” said Jeff Grasser as he sifted through charred wood chips in a 50-gallon drum that he will carefully spread across plots of ski slopes to see how the porous, lightweight biochar might help native grasses and forbs thrive. 

The aptly named Grasser is the head of sustainability at Copper Mountain. He’s got big plans. What if he could create “tons and tons” of biochar in massive kilns, not just little drums? What if Copper Mountain owner Powdr deploys its fleet of helicopters used for skiing in Utah in the winter to help spread biochar across all the ski slopes at the company’s 10 mountain resorts?

“We want to do this in ways that can be done on a very large scale and we can’t wait to share these results with you,” Grasser told the group of resort sustainability leaders. 

The conservation summit included a presentation from folks at Arapahoe Basin detailing how crews replaced vegetation by hand and preserved top soil when installing new chairlift towers. Folks from Eldora Mountain Resort offered details of a project with the Town of Nederland to build a wetland to replace a trailhead parking lot. Sunlight ski area took a page from Copper Mountain’s biodiversity playbook and began collecting native seeds for replanting on ski runs. 

The Copper Mountain project will build a dataset of more than 100 locations across the ski area, with 10 years of science showing how native grasses, compost and biochar can help resort operators regain a more diverse, balanced ecosystem on ski slopes.

Grasser does not see the beeping backhoes churning dirt for luxury condos beneath the study plots on the Formidable ski run as overshadowing his ambitious study of seeds and grasses. Those machines and that project are motivating, he said. 

“We want to work with some of our most disturbed locations and then study how we can improve those areas and do it in ways that are verifiable and academically robust,” he said. “Then we have a story where we can say ‘Hey this works really well. Don’t just take my word for it. We have scientific evidence that supports these methods. These are the first steps in delivering resilience so diversity can grow.’”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...