The EPA gets it

 

Not so long ago, a visit from the Environmental Protection Agency to a ski area meant bad news. In 2000, Aspen was the first resort inspected in what became a raid on the ski industry that seemed to have started alphabetically — we were first, Breckenridge was second, and so on.

Humorless agents in suits went straight to our hazardous waste storage site and immediately cited us for several violations. None were major: We labeled used oil “waste oil;” we didn’t have a screw top on a paint barrel. We fixed the problems and weren’t fined.

The EPA didn’t bother to visit for another 15 years until this winter, during the X Games of 2014-’15, when all eyes were focused on us. This time, our visitor was the head of the EPA herself, Gina McCarthy. She didn’t come to punish us, however; she came to use the games as a megaphone to reach thousands and maybe even millions of young people with a strong message about climate change. And she delivered it in partnership with some of the athletes who have considerable credibility with this generation.

Imagine my pleasure at meeting McCarthy herself instead of silent men with black books.  Boston-tough, super-energetic, contagiously optimistic and as down-to-earth as the hard-rock miners who founded this town, “Call me Gina” took Aspen by storm. She met with X Games champions Kelly Clark and Gretchen Bleiler at the base of the giant halfpipe, gave lots of interviews to the press, stopped by the X Games environmental booth, and joined a business roundtable with hoteliers, county managers and brewery owners. We were happy to host her.   

We have come to think that the biggest threat to our business is the same one that’s facing the planet, especially the members of this younger generation — climate change.  By 2100, scientists estimate our climate will warm by 6 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning that the weather in Aspen will match that of Los Alamos, 300 miles south and 500 feet lower. Los Alamos is a beautiful place with lots of juniper and piñon trees, but it’s very different from Aspen. There’s a little skiing at Pajarito, New Mexico, but not a lot; it’s only open Friday through Sunday. Here in Aspen, we want to be in the ski business all winter and in the recreation business year-round. Skiing is a family sport, one of the few that multiple generations can enjoy together.

But scientists tell us that by the year 2100, piñon and juniper will be growing on top of Highland Bowl, at 12,392 feet above sea level. Currently, that’s remote alpine tundra, home to scree and wildflowers. If we allow that to happen, my grandchildren will never get to ski Highland Bowl with their kids. Our vision – of visitors coming back over the years and even the decades, bringing children who will one day grow up and bring their children, too – will fade like a dream. And our vision is the thing that keeps us going in this business.

Imagine what the Colorado watershed will look like in 2100, and perhaps sooner. The mighty Colorado River now barely makes it to the sea, and it comes up short in meeting agricultural needs. Imagine when the headwaters at Highland Bowl serve no longer as a storage cache to help keep the river running through the summer.  Imagine what will happen to people’s lives here in the West after the land suffers these drastic changes. 

So people in Aspen have many reasons to care about climate change and its effects. It’s not an abstraction to us: We need snow and cold to stay in business. Everything we do is at risk unless we act now to curb climate emissions and find another way to create energy and to reduce our consumption of it. But ultimately, it’s also about our children and grandchildren. We want to do business in a world that they will recognize. Call us sentimental, if you want to, but we think we’re just being practical. 

The EPA has put itself on the front lines of the fight to ensure the future of places like Aspen. In fact, its sensible regulation of our country’s two largest sources of emissions — vehicles and coal-fired power plants — represents the heart of American climate policy.  Gina McCarthy and the agency she heads have taken on that mandate in a courageous manner, attempting to do so in partnership with the very industries being regulated, as was the case with the auto industry.  

McCarthy’s visit to Aspen renewed my confidence in government and its ability to bring sensible solutions to a problem that the private sector cannot solve on its own. She ended her trip, by the way, in the private sector, at the Aspen Brewing Company. Its Belgian Ale, she reports, is spectacular.

Mike Kaplan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is president and CEO of Aspen Skiing Company, which is a member of Protect Our Winters and Ceres’ Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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