IMAGES JOERN ROHDE
Inspired by Whistler Blackcomb, Vail Resorts’ makes ‘Epic Promise’ toward sustainability.
Arthur De Jong, Whistler Blackcomb’s mountain planning and environmental resource manager, has long been forthcoming about Whistler Blackcomb’s (WB) failures and shortcomings on the environmental front. It was one of those failures that led to a long string of successes — one that has seen it rise to the status of industry leader. In 1993, 800 gallons of fuel spilled on Blackcomb Mountain — “a direct result of our deficient performance on the environment,” said De Jong. “Although we had strong due diligence in terms of guest and staff safety, the spill was directly our fault.” After the spill, WB’s leadership team recognized an opportunity to work with community partners and follow the desire of many Whistlerites to see the town, and the company, become a beacon of environmental best practices, De Jong said. The result of that change is a litany of 35 separate awards for environmental stewardship over the past two decades.
By the time Colorado-based Vail Resorts announced its acquisition of WB for $1.4 billion in August 2016, WB’s place at the top of the mountain resort eco-sustainability ladder was already on the radar screen of Rob Whittier and other company brass. Vail Resorts, which owns 13 resorts in North America and one in Australia, had a history of progressive waste diversion and energy efficiency practices and Whittier was keen to share notes with the WB team.
“In my role, Whistler was the most exciting acquisition that we could make,” Whittier said. “Whistler was really the leader in the industry in terms of environmental commitment. Even before we acquired them, I had looked in detail at what Arthur and Whistler had done to promote environmental sustainability.
“As soon as I could, I made a visit to them [De Jong and Allana Williams, WB energy manager and environmental coordinator] to dig deep and understand how committed they were,” said Whittier, Vail Resorts’ director of environmental sustainability. “It was great learning for us and of course, it’s challenging to work across all the resorts in three countries, but we had some great thoughts from Arthur and his team to help refine our company-wide strategy.”
After the 1993 incident, WB officials started working with the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE), the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Get Bear Smart and other Whistler groups to improve its environmental performance. “Every step along the way, we’ve had partners,” De Jong said.
In the early 2000s, WB became one of six key resort partners to become “early adopters” of The Natural Step, a decision-making framework created by Swedish Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt. Under The Natural Step, planning decisions go through a series of four “system conditions” related to economic, environmental and social sustainability. WB collaborated with Innergex in the mid-2000s on the construction of the Fitzsimmons Creek micro-hydro project, a 7.9-megawatt power plant on the creek that runs between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains — look for it as you are crossing on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola. Completed in January 2010, it produces an estimated 32,000 megawatts of power annually — enough to power the entire WB operation. Around the same time, WB carried out its expansion into the Symphony Bowl on Whistler Mountain while cutting down only five per cent of the trees inside the expansion area, as opposed to the typical 40 per cent. “That was another significant change in terms of being able to have a much lighter footprint on the land,” De Jong said.
By the time Vail Resorts bought WB, there were already some synergies, Whittier said. More than 20 years ago, the company began seeking significant reductions for waste diverted to landfills from its properties. In 2008, the Broomfield, Colo.-based company set a target of reducing its energy consumption by 10 per cent — which was achieved by 2011, well ahead of schedule, mostly by attacking what Whittier called “the low-hanging fruit” like more energy-efficient lighting. The company then set about the task of achieving what it called “The Next 10.” It is on track to achieve that by the end of the 2017, he said.
In July 2017, a year after buying WB, Vail Resorts announced its intention to pursue a target of having its resorts achieve a zero-net operating footprint by 2030. Under the heading “Epic Promise for a Zero Footprint,” the company aims to have zero waste going to landfills, zero net emissions and zero net operating impact to forests and habitat within 13 years. “Everything we do at Vail Resorts is driven by the spectacular natural surroundings where our employees, guests and communities live, work and play. The environment is our business, and we have a special obligation to protect it,” Rob Katz, Vail Resorts chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement issued at the time.
The term “Epic Promise” is a heading under which Vail Resorts has promoted environmental and social sustainability for the past few years, Whittier said. Every year during shoulder season, Vail Resorts properties stage an Epic Promise Week, during which employees and community members volunteer to do cleanup and maintenance in natural areas around the community. This past fall, WB employees helped AWARE with a community garden project and carried out trail cleanup, De Jong said. Two of the areas where the greatest gains are likely to occur in the next three years in battling anthropogenic climate change are more energy-efficient snowmaking operations and more efficient fleets of both vehicles and snowmobiles. De Jong said snowmaking technology has improved markedly in recent years. “The technology on the guns is moving very quickly. They’re down to three or four horsepower,” he said.
Whittier said he thinks the “Zero Footprint” target, though ambitious, is a “realistic commitment.” It also makes good economic sense, partly because those who live, work and recreate in the mountains are more committed to environmental stewardship than the general population. “One of the things we can leverage is the employees that we already have,” he said. “Many of them are committed to the outdoors, which allows us to tap into an energy and a sense of purpose that’s just infectious.”
De Jong said any such commitment begins with being realistic about where you are and acknowledging shortcomings. “We have a chance to become a global leader in reducing [environmental] impacts, and thanks to Vail Resorts and Rob Katz, they’ve made a commitment for Vail to be a global leader,” De Jong said. “To their great credit, they’ve put a date on it. Will we achieve that goal? I don’t know, but the effort is being made and I believe we can be an inspirational company.”
For more information visit epicpromise.com/environment/zero-footprint.