A new Climate of Change at Squaw Valley
Green is the new gold at this storied Olympic mountain
story by Paul Tolmé
It’s a balmy March day at Squaw Valley and tourists crowd the base village for the start of the U.S. Alpine Championships, one of the most prestigious events on the American skiing calendar. This is the second straight year that Squaw has hosted the event, and excitement abounds as the nation’s best skiers, including local favorites Julia Mancuso, Marco Sullivan, and a cadre of Squaw alumni charge the race gates, sign autographs, and soak up the Sierra sun and snow.
The 2014 alpine championships represent a milestone for Squaw, and not simply for their prestige. For the second straight year, Squaw has made the alpine championships “carbon neutral” by purchasing carbon credits to offset the greenhouse gasses generated by the event. Bought through the California Climate Action Registry, the credits help subsidize a program at a Central Valley dairy farm that collects methane—one of the most pernicious greenhouse gasses—generated from the dairy farm’s cows and converts it into energy. “The truths and negative impacts associated with climate change are obvious,” says Squaw CEO Andy Wirth. “To debate it any further is a waste of precious time. Now—right now— is the time to take action and get on with it.”
You’ve heard about the Squaw Renaissance, a $50 million effort to improve facilities and provide 21st century amenities to match Squaw’s gold medal mountains. Now begins the next chapter: Squaw’s green U-turn. Under previous ownership, Squaw tangled with environmental regulators and even landed in court on charges of illegally dynamiting trails, cutting trees, excavating dirt, and dumping construction debris without permits. Those days are long gone. “The environmental practices of the past owners have no correlation or relationship to Squaw today,” says Wirth. “We are an entirely different company, driven by our values and with a fierce focus on a very positive, long-range vision.”
With no fanfare and little publicity, Squaw has quietly implemented a host of environmental initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency, and protect the watershed. The transformation began soon after the resort’s acquisition in 2010, when Wirth and his team met with advisors to brainstorm the best ways to reinvent Squaw Valley. Among the advisors was Jeremy Jones, a Truckee resident and snowboarding legend who founded the group Protect Our Winters (POW). Jones pushed an environmental agenda and encouraged Wirth to take a strong stance on climate change and establish Squaw as an industry leader on sustainability. In the years since, Squaw Valley has become an annual financial donor to POW and Wirth has penned op-eds about the hard truths of global warming. And, for the first time ever, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows each have a dedicated sustainability department and a director of environmental initiatives.
“To have Squaw’s leadership come forward and say that climate change is an important issue that is affecting us now is significant, and it’s not something you see very often in the ski industry,” says Jones, noting the impressive scores both Squaw and Alpine received from the Ski Area Citizens Coalition, which grades the environmental practices of ski areas nationwide. Alpine got an A last year; Squaw got a B. “They want to do better and they are putting a microscope on their impact,” Jones says.
Yet a big question remains: How does a ski resort that uses large amounts of energy to propel people uphill, make snow, and lodge guests become an environmental leader? For Squaw, the first step was to appoint an environmental czar.
Michael Gross, the new director of environmental initiatives, is Squaw’s sustainability point man. Under Gross’s scrutiny of the company’s energy use, Squaw has decreased its greenhouse gas emissions over the past three seasons by 1,000 tons through a range of initiatives: retrofitting 1,600 lighting fixtures, installing an energy dashboard that provides real-time data on energy use, and more. As this article went to press, Gross was working with energy efficiency consultants to plan infrastructure updates. This includes replacing an inefficient 1960s boiler system with several high-efficiency condensing boilers for Olympic House, the Members Locker Room, the Tram building, and to power the base village snowmelt system.
Greening a company’s operations is neither simple nor sexy. One of these unglamorous but highly important mandates includes completing Squaw’s first greenhouse gas inventory, a process that required Gross to analyze years of energy use. Greenhouse gas inventories are standard practice for businesses serious about reducing their emissions of global warming gasses. The analysis will identify which parts of the Squaw operation require the most energy and emit the most CO2 and allow Gross to target them for reductions. Squaw plans to publicly announce the results later this year. “We want to be fully transparent about where we are and where we hope to go,” says Gross.
Fortunately, Squaw has an example to follow as it heads down the path of corporate sustainability. In July, Gross, Wirth, and Squaw’s Chief Financial Officer Monty Waugh traveled to Aspen to learn from the Colorado resort’s environmental director, Auden Schendler, and others about how to be both profitable and environmentally responsible.
Aspen is widely considered to be the green leader in the ski industry, and Schendler says he is impressed by Squaw’s desire to become a better environmental steward. To succeed, says Schendler, Squaw must become active on the political and public policy front to push for climate action on the federal, state, and local levels.
“Big ski resorts are high-profile businesses that hold sway in their communities and regions,” he says. “They must use this reputation to push for political and governmental action on climate change. Sustainability today demands that you go beyond operational greening and become more outspoken on the climate.”
This is especially true in the area of public transportation—an area not historically under the oversight of ski area operations. But carbon emissions from customer travel via planes and cars represent the largest chunk of any resort’s greenhouse gas contributions. “As a mountain resort destination, as is the case with all mountain resorts around Tahoe, our biggest challenge is getting people out of their cars,” Wirth says.
Studies show the car occupancy rate of Tahoe resort visitors as 1.18 people per vehicle. “Car trips to and from the resort are the single biggest impact and ongoing threat to global climate change that we as a resort community pose to the environment,” says Wirth. To this end, Wirth is working with the Placer County Board of Supervisors to create a mass transit plan. The details of a transit plan still need to be ironed out, but Wirth says Squaw Valley will drive the discussion in the Tahoe region with the goal of securing public and private
dollars to fund mass transportation.
Squaw also hopes to encourage the use of efficient electric vehicles by installing four plug-in stations at the Far East Center. These chargers are free to Squaw customers and helped inspire longtime Squaw skier Phil Haupt of Roseville to swap out his gas-guzzler for an electric RAV4 this summer. Haupt estimates he’ll save about $2,000 this winter on gas. “This is just one of the reasons that Squaw is awesome,” says Haupt, who skied 40 days last season and spent about $50 in gasoline each trip. “This means I can make it home for just a few pennies in electricity.”
Water quality is another major concern for Squaw. Soils disturbed on the mountain have historically washed downhill, choking rivers and harming fish in Squaw Creek and the Truckee River. So Squaw and Alpine have stepped up their erosion control efforts by mulching barren areas with pine needles and wood chips, replanting native
vegetation, and eradicating invasive species. At Alpine, the resort partnered with the California Tahoe Conservancy to protect Ward Creek, which drains into Lake Tahoe. For the past two summers workers have eliminated less-used service roads and reconfigured an access road in the
Sherwood area of Alpine to reduce erosion. “Our partnership with Squaw Valley has been vital in maintaining our progress in improving the water quality of Ward Creek,” says Patrick Wright, executive director of the California Tahoe Conservancy.
Other visible environmental initiatives include Squaw’s fledgling composting and recycling efforts. This season, Squaw launched a $25,000 pilot program to determine how much compostable waste is generated. That information will help develop a long-term plan to keep the compostable waste of all ski areas and businesses on Tahoe’s north shore out of landfills. Additionally, Squaw aims to spearhead a regional curbside recycling program. Currently, garbage haulers separate some recyclables from the waste stream at their facilities, but a lot of glass and cardboard still ends up in the landfill.
“We want to challenge the status quo in Tahoe,” says Wirth. “For too many years, Tahoe residents have focused on protecting Lake Tahoe to the exclusion of other important issues. Protecting that lake is crucial and requires our unyielding and unrequited attention. But we can’t just put Keep Tahoe Blue bumper stickers on our cars and think the job is done. Bumper stickers are an important value statement and the League to save Lake Tahoe is an outstanding organization, but we need to immediately get into action mode as citizens. That means nonstop advocacy, changing out car-centric mores, and electing representatives that will help us develop and fund credible, consistent, and reliable mass transit options—for locals, our seasonal employees, and our guests.”
The key, of course, is to achieve sustainability without compromising Squaw’s economic vitality. To that end, Squaw proposes expanding its base village to help transform the ski area into a year-round destination. This expansion will not run counter to the resort’s environmental ambitions, says Wirth. Ski areas run on tight budgets. Expanding the base area will help return Squaw to prominence as a world-class resort and generate an estimated $1 million in annual transfer taxes for environmental efforts, according to Squaw Valley. It would also provide reason for people to drive less. Squaw’s bed base is currently too small for peak periods, resulting in thousands of daily car trips by visitors staying in hotels around the Tahoe region. Allowing those visitors to lodge at Squaw would reduce road congestion and automobile emissions, says Wirth.
Some critics question the environmental impact of the proposed development, which would cover 85 acres that are currently used as dirt parking lots. Inevitably, building and operating a new village will consume resources, but if it’s done right, the construction can raise the bar on environmentally conscious development in the Tahoe region, Wirth says. Indeed, Squaw plans to make it the greenest base village in Tahoe—and one of the most sustainable in the United States. Buildings will conform to the exacting standards of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, the benchmark for green building. Wirth has pledged that the entire village will meet a LEED Silver classification, with several buildings designed to meet the LEED Platinum standard—the highest classification possible. “It costs more to do this, but we think in the long run it saves money and creates more value for future real estate customers and owners,” says Wirth.
The redevelopment proposal also includes plans to restore Squaw Creek from its current uniform channel—a course bulldozed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—to a meandering stream. The restoration will reduce silt buildup and allow water to once again seep into the underground aquifer. The new plans call for moving parking underground and for installing a system to collect snow and rain from the rooftops of the new buildings that will be funneled to a treatment facility before being released into the creek.
To solicit feedback on the village proposal Squaw held more than 350 community meetings and met with more than 7,500 individuals, ultimately deciding to decrease the development’s footprint by nearly half.
The efforts are earning praise from environmental leaders. “Squaw historically wasn’t the best environmental steward,” says Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council. “To see them become leaders in the region is very encouraging.”
For Jones, who has seen firsthand the impacts of global warming throughout his travels to snowboard the world’s most far-flung mountains, Squaw’s new environmental ethos is heartening. “They’ve snagged the low-hanging fruit. Getting to the next level is going to take some big steps, but they are doing their homework now and we will see some groundbreaking stuff in the future,” he says.
Back at the U.S. Alpine Championships, Wirth takes in the spectacle and excitement with pride, not just for the racers, but for the carbon neutrality of the event. “This is not a marketing campaign,” he says of Squaw’s sustainability efforts. In fact, the company made a decision not to do any corporate branding of the initiatives, preferring instead to simply identify the issues and get to work. It’s our actions, Wirth points out, not our words, that are important. “In the end, we all want the same thing: to spend time in the mountains—with plenty of snow for many years to come.”
On April 29, our partners at Protect Our Winters (POW) are marching to Make America Deep Again. We’re with them. To help get you on board, we’re dedicating the prime real estate on our site to a smattering of the POW content that Mountain Media has produced over the years. Check it out, get inspired, then follow this link http://protectourwinters.org/join-a-march/ to find a mountain town march near you. #March4POW