It’s summertime above Copper Mountain’s East Village, and on Formidable—a black diamond run in winter that’s accessed by the Super Bee lift—professor Jennie DeMarco and her students from Southwestern University are digging into the earth with field tools. They’re collecting soil samples and assessing the plant composition on the open slope just beyond a thick stand of lodgepole pines. The ground looks barren compared to the forested area, but one of DeMarco’s students notes how much more plant diversity she’s finding compared to other slopes on the mountain.

A host of folks representing other resorts, including Eldora, Sunlight, Arapahoe Basin, and more, watch as the students explain their processes and purpose. Jeff Grasser, senior operations and sustainability manager for Copper Mountain, explains why this sunny slope is perfect for counting plant species in the first place: What it boils down to is biodiversity, he says.

Copper’s Carbon Sequestration Study

Clearing ski runs at resorts is unsurprisingly damaging to the local ecosystem, particularly as giant swaths of flora are removed, but Grasser is trying to change that. This study site is one of a handful at the resort where he and his team are researching biodiversity and carbon sequestration, the process of capturing and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The project began in 2018 with a seed collection program focused on harvesting and then replanting native seed varieties along this specific slope to foster biodiversity. In 2022, the scientists collected seeds from 27 different native species like nodding locoweed and meadow paintbrush along the mountain, and the team is working on gathering roughly two pounds of seeds from 60 species around the resort for 2023. But ever since Copper began its carbon sequestration study last year, seed collection is just a small piece of the puzzle.

Clear-cut ski slopes have a tendency to get stuck in primary succession, Grasser notes, which is basically the first stage of ecological plant growth in a barren area. This means that these areas lack biodiversity and, consequently, a host of other things, including healthy topsoil and the capacity for moisture retention within the dirt, which it needs to grow those lush thickets of lodgepole pine.

Along with seed collection and planting, Grasser is now experimenting with other ways to enrich the ecological biodiversity on Copper’s ski slopes with the hopes of being able to capture carbon in the plants and soil through these nature-based methods. The more plant life and good soil you have, the more carbon is pulled out of the atmosphere and stored back in the earth, he points out. And less carbon in the atmosphere is crucial in the fight to curb climate change.

Grasser and DeMarco have started using local Summit County compost on one of the study sites, in conjunction with their seed planting, to enrich the soil with more organic matter. That should, eventually, prompt more plant life to spring up. But since compost is heavy—and not particularly easy to spread around vast ski slopes—Grasser is also testing out a few other methods.

Thanks to fire mitigation and trail maintenance, ski resorts often end up with piles of slash wood to dispose of each summer. Instead of just burning the lodgepole and aspen slash Copper produces, Grasser is turning it into biochar—a form of charcoal that’s made from partially combusted wood. It does a similar job of enriching the soil, like compost, but it can be made right on-site at the resort—and it’s far lighter, making it easier to sprinkle around the slopes. Biochar also lingers in the soil much longer than compost, meaning it will store that carbon for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, compared to the couple of years it takes compost to break down.

They’re still working out the fine details, but as of right now, one of Copper’s carbon sequestration study sites will include the combination of biochar along with native seed planting. Grasser says that, in future years, he hopes Copper can rely on the resources of its parent company, POWDR, to be able to make larger quantities of biochar on-site and spread it around the slopes efficiently with the use of helicopters.

Collaboration Among Resorts Toward Ski Industry Sustainability

Photo courtesy of Copper Mountain

As it should be with climate solutions, Copper isn’t interested in gatekeeping its findings. Instead, it invites other ski resorts to join in a roundtable at its annual Sustainability Summit where stakeholders can talk conservation shop about new projects and studies. Copper’s focus this year was on its carbon sequestration plots. Other resorts have already adopted seed collection methods similar to Copper, and some are working on their own conservation efforts and sharing those successes at the summit.

Raj Basi, POWDR’s vice president of sustainability, hopes that through the company’s Play Forever conservation initiative it can encourage other resorts to step up conservation efforts for the benefit of the industry as a whole. Play Forever focuses largely on ecosystem conservation at a local level, as Basi noted at the summit, but there are many facets to the initiative that’s overall aim is to allow humans to enjoy these mountain landscapes for generations to come. Along with sharing methods for land conservation practices, Copper has partnered with other resorts, including Breckenridge, on circular recycling programs that aim to reduce waste in ski area lodges.

How Other Colorado Resorts are Working Toward a Sustainable Future

Copper Mountain isn’t the only resort revving up its conservation contributions. Mike Nathan from Arapahoe Basin, Hunter Wright from Eldora, and Mica Selby from Sunlight all share some of their recent successes with land conservation and preservation efforts at the Sustainability Summit.

Multiple resort reps enlist the expertise of botanist and ecologist Rea Orthner from Peak Ecological Services to help achieve some major sustainability wins. Orthner played a critical role in Eldora’s recent wetland restoration project that’s taken place in conjunction with the construction of a new base area lodge that will be used primarily for its Ignite Adaptive Sports program. Eldora partnered with Orthner to restore the wetland area in an old parking lot to help directly offset any negative ecological impacts from the construction of the lodge. The project helps to revive an area that is at “a convergence of two creeks, which was all wetland and riparian habitat before,” Orthner says.

Photo courtesy of Arapahoe Basin

Up the hill at Arapahoe Basin, Nathan and his team have been working on their own wetland restoration project at the site of the old Norway lift, near the top of Black Mountain Express. The project involved extensive planting, hydroseeding, and even removing culverts and restoring stream beds.

Conservation is a major factor in all the projects and operations at the Basin: When selecting areas for lift placement in the resort’s newer Beavers area, Nathan and his team considered the ecosystems at the bottom of the valley, which are home to species like the endangered boreal toad. “We sighted the lift and we sighted the major trails in places that really avoided those impacts in the first place,” Nathan says.

The resort has also recently added to its summer trail system with the new mountain bike-only Beavers Loop Trail. During construction, the team was careful to intrude as little as possible on the surrounding landscape, even saving patches of topsoil and existing vegetation so that they could be placed along the side of the singletrack.

Sunlight Mountain, a small resort near Glenwood Springs, has taken Copper’s seed collection methods and used them on its own slopes. Selby and company have created a strong partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to help identify approved seeds for collection and planting with the hopes of also restoring vegetation and biodiversity on Sunlight’s ski slopes.

As skiers, it can often be hard to admit that our beloved sport isn’t exactly doing the environment any favors. But the solution doesn’t have to be abandoning the slopes. It’s possible that the resources from large resorts and companies like POWDR can inspire the industry to be a part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Restoring and maintaining local ecosystems seems to be one of the best ways that ski resorts can contribute to positive action in the fight against climate change. But collaboration among resorts is one of the best ways to get these projects off the ground, and thanks to that, making progress feels a little less like a distant target and more like an attainable goal.

Stasia Stockwell
Stasia Stockwell
Stasia is a writer and mountain dweller who currently calls the Tenmile Range home.