Can Copper Mountain do something about climate change by using its own slopes?

Western ski area officials know they will lose up to 25% more of their snowpack by 2050, after already suffering 20% ​​losses during a decades-long drought.

Thanks to snowmaking from local river water and isolated geographic luck, ski areas in Colorado have so far managed to avoid the devastating effects of climate change and drought. But their margin for continuing to do so is shrinking.

Copper Mountain believes the industry must tackle climate change one seed at a time.

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

Some climatologists advocate countering the rising temperature of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by growing more carbon-storing trees and plants, or by injecting industrially produced carbon directly underground.

Copper Mountain hosted a climate change summit last week to exchange ideas and launch university forces on its slopes, with a researcher and students from Southwestern University staking out test plots near the American Eagle lift. Copper has already sent staff and volunteers to collect seeds from hardy and adaptable plants in the county and plant them on the slopes.

Researchers will now measure an unimproved 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, efforts within the industry indicate that resorts cannot simply rely on more snowmaking or higher runs in new basins to ensure winter trails. They need to be part of the bigger picture of reducing the temperature by reducing carbon emissions through sequestration on the slopes, buying clean electricity for the lifts and recycling more.

“I believe we need an additional conversation at the table. And that’s pretty much what we can do locally,” said Jeff Grasser, Copper’s Senior Director of Resort Operations and Sustainability.

“There are two elements to securing the future of skiing,” Grasser said. “We can’t detract from our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and help others reduce their carbon footprints globally. And then we need extra efforts to double what we can do at the local level, to help our ecosystems through this period of climate change.

Jeff Grasser, sustainability manager for Copper Mountain, leads a group tour above the center of the 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 US Forest Service, which leases most onshore ski areas, and nonprofits like Blue River Watershed Group. The National Association of Ski Areas provided a grant and also joined the summit.

A study published in October in “Nature Reviews: Earth and Environment” by researchers from Western states said the trends “suggest about 35 to 60 years before light or no snow will become persistent if greenhouse gas emissions from greenhouse continue unabated”.

Layers of dust that melt the snowpack blow more frequently as the West suffers a 22-year “mega-drought”. The anecdotal impacts on local ski areas are piling up: Crested Butte, which typically buzzes on Dec. 1, reported only two runs open that day in 2021, after its early-season snowpack reached than half normal.

Resorts like Copper Mountain have relatively high water rights that will allow them to draw snowmaking water from mountain springs even during droughts, noted Kendra Fuller, executive director of the Blue River Watershed Group. But resorts are now aware that pulling all the stops during dry seasons can cause long-term damage to the ecosystem, she added.

“We all have to consider that we’re not going to have the same flows that we’ve seen historically,” Fuller said. “And it will take every stakeholder, every person working on water conservation to maintain any type of flow in the river. The first thing that’s going to be cut is the easiest thing to do, and that’s usually the environment. And so it won’t just take ski areas, but all of us to look at what our new stream will look like, what our new runoff season will look like.

Copper and other major ski resorts have worked ahead on ecosystems and climate change, compared to other major business interests, Fuller believes. This may be because their main asset, the 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 lift construction or other maintenance work. Diversifying plant and tree resources makes Summit County more resilient to drought and damaging outbreaks of pests, such as pine beetles.

But Grasser and others also think Copper’s main ski runs, relatively undisturbed by construction or planting for years, could do more to grow low-lying plants that absorb carbon and store it in the ground. The station worked with the Forest Service to select promising species, and with a consultant and Southwestern University to plan a long-term study.

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

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

Nonprofits in Summit County 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 in the Summit County area,” she said. “So if we can learn from them, then we can actually go to some of our larger northern ranches and ask them if they’re interested in implementing some of the same strategies to increase sequestration.”

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