Copper Mountain has 2,507 skiable acres, and maintaining those slopes—building terrain parks, replacing lift towers, fixing underground pipes, removing trees to create new trails—requires a lot of work with heavy machinery. All that terraforming disrupts the earth beneath that fluffy white snow, preventing the ground and vegetation from pulling emissions from the air that contribute to climate change.
In order to combat that problem, a group of volunteers has spent the past three summers meticulously handpicking individual seeds from hundreds of native plants found at Copper. The goal is to take seeds, most of which are sourced from the bottom of the front side of the mountain, and then plant them in areas that have been disturbed by humans. If the seeds get enough water to grow before the incoming winter, the new foliage will use photosynthesis to help pull carbon from the air. The effort is the first of its kind at an American ski area. And if successful it could provide a useful strategy for outdoor recreation areas to reduce carbon footprints, especially given that local flora will thrive in these ecosystems.
“Biodiversity is nature’s insurance policy,” says Jeff Grasser, Copper Mountain’s efficiency manager. “Having more biodiversity in an area strengthens the earth, cleans the air more, and ultimately helps to create more biodiversity over time.”
Research for the project began as part of Grasser’s graduate studies at the University of Northern Colorado in 2017. He designed a native seed collecting program to help restore vegetation at Copper Mountain and offset its carbon emissions. After receiving a special permit from the U.S. Forest Service, Grasser began collecting seeds in 2019. “The 10-year goal [is to] achieve meaningful carbon storage on the ski slopes of Copper Mountain to offset carbon emissions,” that he says mostly come from Copper’s ski lift auxiliary engines.
From July through September, collecting seeds requires methodical work. Grasser and the volunteers gather and document seeds for free (although a lunch is provided). Following a detailed 26-point operating plan, each party sets out at Copper Mountain to collect as many seeds as possible. They make certain that only 30 percent of the regionally common and locally abundant plant’s seed is collected (20 percent during drought years). Next, all seeds need to experience a “cool” season—meaning they’ll need to be refrigerated at the resort at a constant 35- to 40-degrees Fahrenheit through the winter, imitating the climate they will eventually be dispersed in.
Certain types of plants found at Copper Mountain and in Colorado, like legumes, use a significant amount of carbon during photosynthesis. So, collecting its seed and finding ways to grow more could help offset carbon emissions produced by operations and recreation. “There is an established correlation between biodiversity and an ecosystem’s capacity to store carbon,” Grasser says. “So, the greater the biodiversity, the greater the carbon storage potential can often be found.”
During the following summer, Grasser and his team then spread seeds from the variety of native plants—like nodding locoweed, alpine miklvetch, and meadow paintbrush—at areas around the ski area that have previously been disturbed by humans and are lacking foliage. Grasser hopes to see growth in the next one to three years. (It takes a season for seeds to root.) He also plans to visually compare the vegetation growth over time. In about four years, they may be able to measure the amount of carbon dioxide being taken from the air and stored in the ground.
This past summer, Grasser and volunteers were able to collect more than 60 different types of seeds from regionally common and locally abundant species. Because of those efforts, Copper Mountain received the Golden Eagle Award (the highest honor bestowed on a ski area for environmental performance) from the National Ski Areas Association.
Other ski areas and outdoor recreation operations are also considering adopting this cost-effective approach to potentially cutting their carbon footprint. So far, mountain managers in Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and Loveland Ski Area have shown interest in replicating the efforts to restore native plants, as well as nonprofit organization Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, which helps maintain and improve popular trails and recreation spots in the Summit County area.
“Making Copper an island of conservation sure makes a nice story,” Grasser says. “But long-term support for biodiversity needs other land managers to follow suit.”