The sustainability paradox: Striving for green in Snowmass’ tourism-based economy
Editor’s Note: This is part of a three-story series published in the Dec. 25 Snowmass Sun looking at sustainability efforts in the village.
In a house tucked away in the trees off of Faraway Road, Joseph Goodman sat in a chair, engulfed by his two sons.
He smiled as they climbed on his back and his legs and begged him to play. Goodman gave in and tickled them every once in a while. But the rest of his demeanor was serious.
“As a parent, I feel guilty,” Goodman said as his sons worked on untying his shoelaces. “Every morning when I kiss my kids goodbye, get into my car and start the gas engine, I feel guilty. There is real guilt there, … and I think others must feel it, as well.”
For Goodman, a member of the Snowmass Environmental Advisory Board, that guilt stems from contributing to the current and future catastrophic impacts of climate change by being a carbon energy consumer.
Since he moved to Snowmass Village about five years ago, Goodman said he’s dedicated his career to addressing climate change and protecting the Earth’s ecosystems. After working for a few years at the Rocky Mountain Institute, he established a fund and began “investing small amounts of personal capital and insane amounts of time” into promising renewable energy projects.
Yet, in the same breath of acknowledging his drive and dedication to clean energy initiatives, Goodman also acknowledged the fact that he still contributes to the problems he spends countless hours trying to solve on a daily basis every time he flips a light switch.
“There’s a lot of paradox in climate change right now because half of the global economy is tied to making the planet dirty,” Goodman said. “So, it’s virtually impossible to be a part of the economy and not be tied to part of the carbon bubble.”
Snowmass Village is no exception to this global paradox; in fact, it’s a seemingly strong example of the push-pull relationship with the carbon economy countless communities face.
Since 2009, town officials have strived for sustainability and greater efficiency through a set of guiding focal points and criteria for improvement (see related story on page 6).
But at the same time locals are working to decrease their emissions and the village’s carbon footprint, the number of visitors and tourism opportunities the town economy so heavily depends upon continue to increase, creating a paradox that begs the question: How can a town really be a green community if its economy is anchored on such a high-carbon industry?
According to the town’s 2017 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory report, emissions have decreased by 17% from the 2009 baseline, and the village is on track to meet its 20% carbon emissions reduction by 2020 goal.
But while water and building emissions are on a decreasing trajectory, aviation and transportation emissions are on an increasing trend, with a 60% increase in aviation emissions since 2009.
This large increase is due to the increase in airport operations at the Aspen Pitkin County Airport, the report stated, and the increase in transportation emissions was related to more trucks and cars being on the village roads than in 2014.
In May 2019, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, presented this emissions report to town officials. The local nonprofit has been working with the town for over 25 years to save energy and cut carbon emissions, and though there has been progress, Executive Director Mona Newton said she feels the village can do even more.
“Like every community, Snowmass has a ways to go,” Newton said. “I think they’ll reach their ‘20 by 20’ goal because they’ve been really working at it, but they need to work harder and need to get more people involved.”
As acknowledged by CORE and town officials, part of the reason Snowmass Village has been so successful in reducing its overall emissions is a direct result of Holy Cross Energy’s local energy conservation efforts and move to a 39% renewable energy grid.
According to Mike Steiner, key accounts specialist with Holy Cross Energy and a member of the Environmental Advisory Board, the energy co-op aims to have a 100% renewable energy grid by 2040.
Like Newton, Steiner is confident in Snowmass Village’s ability to find a sustainable balance and serve as a green model for other communities around the world.
“Government policies or not, the fact is renewables have become affordable and they are competing and beating fossil fuels on price,” Steiner said. “Ten years ago if you would have told me that wind and solar was going to compete with the coal plants on the variable cost of energy, I would have called you nuts. So it’s just been crazy how quickly this stuff has become economical and more efficient, too.”
Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Co., was another voice advocating for Snowmass’ ability to be a sustainable resort community.
But when asked about the village’s sustainability paradox and how to find balance, Schendler said balance isn’t an option.
“Climate change is a societal problem, the entire economy is based on carbon,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if we rely on tourism or manufacturing or whatever, the most effective way to make a difference is to decarbonize the economy and the planet.”
For over 20 years, Schendler said he’s worked in a sustainability capacity with Skico, which has various green initiatives to point to at Snowmass Ski Area, like its micro hydro project on Fanny Hill, its on-mountain dining compost program, and years-long efforts to increase its snowmaking efficiency in collaboration with the local water district.
But Schendler said Skico is mostly focused on using its company leverage to influence substantial green policy changes at the local, state and national levels, and to leave an impression on Aspen-Snowmass visitors by advertising its “Give a Flake” campaign and handing out its most recent sustainability report.
“These things are important because they keep people inspired and optimistic,” Schendler said of Skico’s localized sustainability projects and larger green policy initiatives. “The fact that we get so many tourists just makes our efforts even more influential.”
Goodman sees the village’s status as a resort location as a potential driver for change, too.
An optimist who’s also very risk-conscious, Goodman said he plans to continue to actively pursue clean energy initiatives and hopes Snowmass locals will do more to protect the village ecosystem, actions which he feels could potentially rub off on visitors and spread sustainable change to their home communities, too.
“There’s a lot at stake here. We have so much to lose and so much opportunity to do well and have a huge outside influence,” Goodman said. “If you’re in Snowmass Village, take the time to go out on the mountain and reflect on how much is not lost, what’s worth saving and the legacy you want your kids and grandkids to experience.”