Change often seems a slow thing in the southern Rockies. Take, for example, our reverence for the ancient community of Taos Pueblo, which has seemingly stood still (its inner core remains unchanged) for a thousand years, making it the oldest continually inhabited community in the country. Truly, adaptation is survival. On the other hand, time can feel speeded up, and the effect of climate change on our mountains is one such moment. It’s time to take the long view. In the last decade, we feel cheated out of winter by about a month each year. Snowboarders and skiers feel this in our blood and bones.
Having taught skiing for more than 25 years, last year was most challenging. Let me rephrase that. It was the most challenging one for me since the advent of snowmaking, something that resorts are putting more money into as a form of adaptation. Snowmaking is becoming more efficient, but it is also more extensive. Therefore last year was not the best, but it certainly wasn’t the worst, either. We made the most of it. In a lot of ways, it was my best season ever, though it required extra shots of creativity.
What does it mean to be more creative? Recreationalists bond with their beloved Mother Nature but also contribute to human impacts, especially if you think about energy-guzzling, lift-served, snowmaking- dependent sports.
Cantankerous nature writer Edward Abbey offered this perspective: “Be but a half hearted-crusader,” he wrote. He didn’t mean be half-assed, he meant be a bad ass. He meant get real, use real science, and get real organized. Keep your passion. Find sublime joy and even stupid fun. Don’t just cry in your beer; raise a pint to celebrate the jaw-dropping beauty all around. Make that a local beer in a nondisposable container. Gotta start somewhere.
And that’s just what many in the southern Rockies are doing, oftentimes guided by industry organizations like the National Ski Area Association (NSAA) which help members track their greenhouse gasses (GHGs) because the major heat-trapping gas increased by human activity is Carbon Dioxide (CO2), with atmospheric concentrations of CO2 increasing at about 0.5 percent a year.
They recognize that so-called environmental issues are always stubbornly complex and absolutely integrated (think: culture, economy, ecology). So NSAA members look at more than just direct impacts. The good news is that recreational consumers care about such issues and are putting pressure on the places where they pay to play.
Aspen and Taos, for example, posted goals to lower carbon by 18 and 20 percent respectively by 2020 (Vail’s report card was something you’d never show your mother). Sometimes creativity is simplicity: Monarch still boasts “pure” snow, moving parking lot snow onto the base area. Interestingly, the legal quotas for water use remain as always, though some take issue with snowmaking, not wanting the streams to be used for snow. Others rejoice at this “water banking” system, because frozen water saved higher up means more water melting down to farmers when they need it most.
Protect our Winters (POW) highlights a study with the Natural Resources Defense Council to highlight winter sports tourism’s economic impacts—millions of skier/boarder visits added $11.3 billion in economic value in the 2015–2016 season, for example. The quantification argument is a tool to counteract the influence of resource extraction—mineral, oil, and gas which are, after all, huge income producers. Ski resorts, of course, are almost always within Forest Service boundaries. POW works politically towards its goals, too: 1. An economy-wide price on carbon; 2. A transition to a clean-energy economy (solar); and 3. The use of innovative transit solutions to minimize emissions.
In terms of clean energy, one need look no further than Wolf Creek, since it’s the first resort ever to use 100% renewable energy, thanks to a new 250-acre solar farm in partnership with San Luis Rural Family Electric. One of the last family-run ski hills left, its snow cats run on biodegradable grape seed oil. It has new zero discharge, water free restrooms, too.
Buying offsets is another tool in the toolbox. The new TaosJet service to Austin and Dallas amps up the game, yet TSV can still meet carbon quotas because their involvement with a Texas project lowers carbon there. Still, most goals must be met locally. Biofuel use, recycling, employee transportation, and more efficient building lighting systems are the new normal at many resorts from Red River, Angel Fire, Taos, Wolf Creek, Sipapu, Purgatory, to Monarch.
In the spirit of using lemons to make lemonade, Monarch Mountain’s local ski company, Meier Skis, is using a beetle kill infestation to advantage. The downed wood is transformed into their famously hip eco-friendly, artfully handmade skis. They don’t just local-source their toys, they happily local-source their beer, and proudly participate in the National Forest Fund.
Taos has won a number of awards after conservationist Louis Bacon bought the area in 2014, and has thus spent more than 200 million, with another 100 or so to go. The vision has translated into things like the elimination of plastics, part of the Taos Verde initiative, which also works with the local community. On the USSA website, its 20 percent reduction of carbon by 2020 goal even outdoes Grade-A Aspen-Snowmass (competition is a good thing). The new Blake Hotel in Taos Ski Valley conforms to Silver LEED standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the most widely used green building rating system), with geothermal systems and hyper efficient heating/cooling systems. There are five electric charging stations, a new food desiccator that turns food waste into mountain re-vegetation, and it is the only ski area to get B-Corp Standing. (B-Corp is a business organization that holds its members to high standards of environmental and social justice sustainability.) They also partner locally with the Rio Grande Water Fund, and their forest thinning practices offer relative stability after more than a century of dangerous fuel-loading due, in part, to antiquated no-burn philosophies.
To my eye, there’s nothing more beautiful on this green earth than snow. Dawn Boulware, TSV Human Resources Manager, has skied here since she was three. “It’s not just what’s right, it’s protecting what we’re deeply connected to,” she says.
One afternoon during our drought-flattened season last year, the sky turned violet-grey and it began to snow. We were transformed into kids again, with cold happy faces. Ha ha! There we were again, turning back the clock and making turn after turn as if, Of course! We own the whole damn mountain! Swaddled in that new/old perfect white universe, my inner voice piped up: Don’t just pray for snow, that thing that you worship. Work for it. And then, never ever miss the chance to go out and dance in it too.
Michele Potter, PhD, is a longtime Taos ski instructor and trail runner who has also taught many UNM classes, including Environment, Science, and Technology. Her photos, travel blogs and essays (including many from past issues of this magazine) can be found at email@example.com.
This article appeared in the 2018-2019 issue of SkiCountry magazine.