Aspen vs. Vail: The War Turns Green

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Vail, Colorado

The Aspen Skiing Company recently announced a daily lift ticket price of $87 for the 2007-2008 season, believed to be the most expensive in U.S. history. Colorado ski enthusiasts are awaiting the response of arch-rival Vail, which is likely to match if not exceed it. But in another key area of competition between the two resort towns, Vail claims to have the upper hand. It says it is greener than Aspen.

A day after the Aspen announcement, Denver papers noted that Vail was the only ski resort on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's top-10 list of green-power users. That came as a blow to Aspen, since environmental affairs have long been the town's specialty. The Vail Daily has been particularly nettlesome. A reporter took inventory of environmental blunders and food waste following an Aspen City Council planning retreat last month and found paper Starbucks cups, Nantucket juice bottles and plastic water containers. "On the second day, the leftovers from breakfast included 12 hard-boiled eggs, eight throwaway containers of yogurt, 14 pastries, 14 bagels and 11 croissants." Another story reported that the Aspen Institute didn't pick up its trash following its Ideas Festival and received a $68 ticket from the Colorado Division of Wildlife for attracting three bears.

Both communities downplay the rivalry. But when promised anonymity, advocates on both sides trade ripostes: "Aspen is an authentic mining town and Vail is faux-Bavarian housing manufactured out of a livestock pasture in 1962," for example, and "Aspen has the town but Vail has the mountain."

In the race to see who's the greenest, Vail's Awards and Accolades web page lists its EPA honor first, followed by a 2006 Aspen Climate Action Conference "Stay Cool, Take Action" Award for its purchase of windpower. Yes, an award given out in Aspen. Vail bought 152 million kilowatt hours of windpower to supply all its resorts, trumping an earlier purchase by Aspen. Says Vail spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga: "Our company's decision to offset 100% of our electricity needs with windpower credits was made because it's simply good for the environment, and taking care of the spectacular settings in which we operate our resorts is vital to our business."

Aspen responds that it too is completely run on windpower, but since Vail is a much bigger operation (Vail Resorts Inc. owns Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Heavenly and the Grand Teton Lodge Company), its purchase appears more significant. "Vail is a huge company," says Aspen's Environmental Affairs Director Auden Schendler, "about six times as large as we are. We would never make that list because we're simply not big enough in terms of total electricity use." "We're still on the forefront of the green program," says Aspen spokesman Jeff Hanle. "We're not doing it for a marketing ploy." Meanwhile, Aspen is upping the ante. Says Schendler: "We are working on developing a 150 kw solar farm in collaboration with a high school, a town and a nonprofit. It will be up, we hope, within a year."

Both resorts have good reason to take action for the environment. Aspen's Schendler says global warming's impact is "mind-blowing," with a potential rise of 7.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 30 and next 30 years in the area. "The climate models suggest that we'll see more warming during the nights," he says, "Our snowmakers are actually seeing this on the ground, and it makes our snowmaking more expensive or impossible on certain nights in the early season and even now in the mid-season." Adds Schendler: "We are seeing runoff happening several weeks earlier each year. Conditions you used to consider May conditions now occur in April."

But Vail seems intent on winning this battle as well. Less than 100 miles away, Vail officials say they've seen no similar global warming effect. "The Colorado Rockies are in a different situation than the European Alps," says spokeswoman Ladyga "We're situated at much higher elevations — over 12,000 feet at our summits. Seasons have not shortened and our snowfall has been consistent."

Aspen, your move.