Friday, November 23, 2012

Ski Resort Natural Resource Management

I must have rewritten this article five different times over two months. The topic of natural resources is something that I am very passionate about. I'm a decent technical writer and I've also been know to wax poetically; however, I can't seem to weave together my thoughts on what I thought I understood were landscape-level resource management issues with mountain recreation and the expansion of our playgrounds. Maybe it's a balancing act between loving something to death and moving forward with minimal impact.

There's a lot we take for granted...snow, mind-blowing mountain scenery, a safe place to ride, and someone to pick up after the day is done. While some are long-gone back to their IPA and heat, the next shift is rolling in to groom, make snow,  re-stock, and get the machines fixed. Organized places make it easy for us to ride (resorts, ski areas, and their support networks) and are an integral part of the sport. Have you thought about the impact these areas we enjoy may have on the natural resources that make them so spectacular and how these areas are maintained? Timber resources are cut to expand trails, millions of gallons of water are used to make snow, and terrestrial and aquatic habitat is altered and can be impaired both in the short- and long-term. I wanted to focus this post on natural resource conservation and impacts of resorts and ski areas. Probably the most referenced online sources for these issues include the Ski Area Citizens Coalition report card and Sustainable Slopes. I read through several reports and references and when I thought I understood the concerns, I asked Hunter Sykes of Coldstream Creative and creator of the documentary Resorting to Madness to dig deeper and set me straight. 

A little background information: 

The Ski Area Citizens Coalition uses the following four criteria to grade western ski resorts in their current environmental performance:  
  • Habitat protection
  • Watershed protection
  • Climate change
  • Resort environmental policies and practices
The Top Ten and Worst Ten report cards are graded on: maintaining ski terrain within the existing footprint and preserving undisturbed land from development; protecting and preserving endangered species, environmentally sensitive areas, and wetlands; water quality and conservation; climate change; renewable energy and energy efficiency, transportation, and waste.

The US National Ski Areas Association, a trade organization for ski area owners and operators publishes an annual Sustainable Slopes report, highlighting ski area efforts towards an environmental charter for sustainable operations. The charter covers efforts in fish and wildlife management, forest and vegetation management, and wetlands and riparian areas, among other areas. I spent time reading several reports, focusing on the conservation efforts. Highlighted examples include native plant nurseries and revegetation, pine beetle surveys, drainage improvements, restoration of previously drained wetlands in adjacent national forests (through partnerships), low-impact ground disturbance bridges and erosion control during biking season, and protocols to document and implement ground disturbance projects. 

The issues:

Initially, I assumed that erosion from land disturbance and runoff, habitat fragmentation, and timber/vegetation management were probably the biggest natural resource issues based on the nature of trail expansion and the footprint. Erosion occurs when soil and rock break down over time and can become a problem when the sediment is transported into water bodies after rainfall, impairing aquatic habitat.  It seemed to me that year-round resort operations, such as mountain biking and hiking could impact soil stability and cause erosion; however, Hunter Sykes (also a former summer trail foreman) says that erosion and water quality impacts are minimal in the big picture and that trails are built and maintained to be as sustainable as possible. "The amount of erosion caused by spring run-off on graded trails, access roads, and from deep snowmaking piles are far greater in scope than any erosion from trails, " Sykes says and "in general, the only major water quality impacts that are attributable to ski areas are during infrastructure installation (buildings, lifts, roads, snowmaking) or when runs are being cut and/or graded.  In the latter case, runs that are cut and graded are equipped with  multiple diversion waterbars and anti-erosion matting and then reseeded, and after a year or two, are usually stable." While these impacts are important, climate change impacts to wildlife and habitat could become an additional concern. Hunter says "as climate change impacts are felt more, ski area terrain may become even more critical for some species survival. The impacts of the ski areas pales in comparison to the impacts of resorts, towns, roads and water use that surround them."

Hunter recently discussed the impacts of snowmaking by removing water from watersheds during critical low-flow periods and endangering the health of aquatic species  in Outside Magazine. He also discussed with me the potential problem of large, dense man-made snow piles from half-pipes, jumps, and race courses that can linger long into summer. "The melting water from the snow piles can weaken soils and increase flows in small streams, not accustomed to longer, higher flows."

So what about real estate development and expansion? I asked Hunter a question about how ski areas and resorts are implementing environmentally-friendly building design and smart growth concepts, including U.S. Green Energy Council LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings. I didn't really think about the difference between the definition of a "ski area" and a "resort",  but as Hunter pointed out, ski areas act really as a means to get people to the top of a hill versus resorts that offer second homes and condos, restaurants, shopping, and other activities more along the lines of a support service- the whole shebang. Both can be sustainable, but ski areas by the nature of their size have a smaller footprint and impact. There are a lot of LEED developments, both in operations and real estate design, but as skiing and snowboarding demographics change over time, both  areas and resorts are going to have to think about how to become more sustainable and future development.

Most resorts in the eastern US are on private land, versus those in the western US are often on US Forest Service or on other public lands. Land policy comes into play in both circumstances. Privately- owned ski areas can protect their land and restrict real estate development and commercial use through a conservation easement. For example, Stowe Resort placed a conservation easement in the Spruce Peak development with the Vermont Land Trust to protect 2,000 acres, 10  acres of ski terrain that were restored back to it's natural state. This option may not be available to areas and resorts on that do not directly own the land they operate, but understanding the land policy and motives may help us to understand if there is a balanced intent. 

Next time your legs are dangling from the chair lift and your are looking at the ground, think about how the land is being managed and what plants and wildlife occupy the space you like to ride. What happens in the deep forest far away from the snowcat's hum at night? Who is your unknown hiking partner in the summer? How can your ski resort both manage and share this place and maybe make it a little better?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

How do snowboard companies address environmental issues?

It's hard to find any commonality among how the snowboard industry discusses environmental impacts and potential solutions. Honestly, it's not a surprise that this industry isn't trying to pigeonhole itself into corporate responsibility reports or other corporate lingo. Luckily (or not), I know nothing about marketing strategy. So here's my first impression while scanning through company websites and reports.

Size matters. Brands can be broken down by those owned by a larger corporation and those made in limited quantity by small companies. I was blown away by Illicit Snowboarding's article, The Faceless Corporations That Run Snowboarding that listed how many companies are actually owned by a larger corporation that manage multiple brands under a "division". To me this means a few things, more dollars to investigate and more available lending ability to invest in a strategy to return dollars to meet goals...and more employees. If a brand has the means to put time and effort into tracking issues and producing a report, then it has more options to enhance communications through their website or glossy annual reports, investing in manufacturing improvements, and developing a strategy. That's not to say that a small company doesn't have an environmental program, but that it seems to me most mega-global-investor-backed-types may be able to afford to track water/energy/waste/community projects full-time, than the owner that is their own shop-keeper/board-presser/marketing-strategist/receptionist/accountant/gotta sleep sometime-type. Which brings me to...

Focus. Obviously, most companies are focused foremost on technical details and quality; however, some brands make an effort to develop an environmental focus and strategy, whether it's because they realize the sport is environmentally-dependent or for a lifestyle expression. Some are straight-up, we focus on product only.

So, what do they say? Metrics. Initiatives. Lists. I looked at both producers of apparel and boards, and I looked at both the corporate-level and individual brand-level. Not everybody has the same approach and not one is the best. I did find that some in fact do define and track their amount of greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and waste production and that some report that amount and have set goals to reduce impacts. These were either the corporations themselves or large companies (uh, Nike for surprises there). This approach was the most detailed and directed towards improving the manufacturing process, as well as probably the most expensive. There are several brands and corporations that focus their approach under an "umbrella" of programs aimed at providing funding or foundational support to environmental non-profits (such as POW, Surfrider, etc) and to projects that have a direct approach on improving the place where the action goes down, such as community clean-up days and grass-roots action. There were also brands that provide information on what the community or individual can do through brand blogs or outreach campaigns. Some have a dedicated product line focused on using alternative materials with fewer environmental impacts. Then, there were some that said nothing. Maybe it's because they are new to the approach and haven't unveiled a framework or maybe that's not their focus.

It's hard to say which approach is the best, because of the intended audience. At first, I wanted to see some numbers. I like details behind how much a brand is actually trying to lessen impacts, but I am a bit of a number-cruncher. If the intent of the brand/corporation is to swoon investors and number-nerds into purchasing, then a report-format will fit that audience. However, if the intent is to pull partners and individuals together to accomplish a common goal, then maybe the foundation-support is the approach.  Despite the audience, I do like some information on what the product is made from. There are not rights or wrongs, and I am not trying to pull-punches. The industry does have guys/gals making boards by hand because they love to do it and they want to sale a product that they believe in to only a few people. They shouldn't be chastised because they don't produce a 80-page sustainability report. It really boils down to what the consumer is looking for.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Riding as art

Cruise on over to the latest scribble in Topographic Expressions to see what this art business is about!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Biobased-epoxy resins in snowboards...stick it.

Biobased products are made from substances derived from living material. Several types of product categories are made from biobased substances including plastics, fuel additives, lubricants, coatings, and many others. Agricultural technology and biorefining allow the conversion of biomass, such as forest residues, corn, or switchgrass into fuel, power, and green-chemicals. The U.S. Farm Bill (2008) defines biobased materials as "commercial or industrial products (other than food or feed) that are comprised in whole or in significant part, of biological products, renewable agricultural materials (including plant, animals, and marine materials), forestry materials, and intermediate ingredients or feedstocks.

A few snowboard companies use biobased alternatives in place of petroleum-based resins and topsheet plastics. These biobased materials include soy-protein, nut and grain, and pine-oil-based materials. The environmental benefits of these alternatives include the use of renewable resources, fewer hazardous wastes, biodegradable material that doesn't sit in a landfill as long, less occupational exposure to chemical irritants, reducing or eliminating Bisphenol A (BPA), and in some cases recycling and reuse of pulp and paper waste stream byproducts.

One popular example of a a biobased epoxy resin is Snappy Sap, Niche Snowboard's proprietary replacement for traditional epoxy resins. Niche partnered with Entropy Resins and their eco-resin Super Sap to create a unique blend of epoxidized pine oil that is a byproduct of biomass sourced as a co-product or waste streams from the pulp and paper industry. Traditionally in the processing of timber into pulp and paper, the pulping process breaks down the wood fibers down into smaller pieces that are cooked. Through the process the waste material (pieces of bark, cellulose materials, and sticky pitch) is removed and not longer needed in the pulp and paper manufacturing. It's this recovered material that can be reused to make new biobased resin.

Biobased resins are also used in banking kayaks and boats and in surfboards. There are two questions that still remain in my mind. What about an eco-friendly harder (you have to mix the resin with a hardener to cure it) and how can you trace the water use in the supply chain for the biobased alternatives?

Nerd Fodder:$file/cr_existingBioresins.pdf

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Plants, mon

Greenroom Voice, a really great website for researching environmentally-friendly products, just posted an interesting article discussing biomimicry in fashion called Nature and Biomimicry. I've always thought this would be an interesting topic for manufacturing alternatives. The natural world has been working pretty hard over the past millions of years to perfect "products" and "processes".  Most of these products are the result of an evolutionary advantage for warding off predators, eliminating a waste or biochemical byproduct creation, or attracting a mate. Pharmaceutical companies look to nature to create synthetic derivatives of drugs, but way before modern medicine herbs, plants, and some animal excretions were used to treat illness. Industry designers look for aerodynamic shapes and mobility in birds and sea animals for construction. Plant products are amazing for saps and strength and even combustion byproducts can be recycled and turned into glass. Man has gotten pretty good at creating and ripping off nature. Let's not forget why natural materials and alternatives are so good at what they do.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Topographic Expressions

Phase two of Forever Shred.

Check out my new page "topographic expressions". I hope I can post separate ramblings on my new tab. This is all a big experiment, so bear with me..

This is the time of the year when snowboarders transition into something else to take our minds off of yearning to be on the mountain. I guess if you are lucky enough to follow the snow then you are, well lucky. The rest of us are stuck at home dreaming of powder. Some surf, some skate, some bike, some do get the point.

Production lines don't stop. People are still creating new product and looking for new ideas. I'll still write about what the snowboard industry is doing in terms of sustainability year-round. Never fear, right?!

My sweet, sweet Jackson.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Innovation: powder chasers with a wild dream?

What is innovation?

Inspiration. Risk. Knowledge seeking. Hypotheses. Prototype testing. Demonstration. Market penetration...

Probably all of the above, but I want to focus on inspiration and risk.

How do the best companies out there innovate? You know them, they are the ones people follow for the next big thing. The newest materials and shapes. Chances are these companies have some gifted employees that are dreamers or full-on nutty types. They are asking themselves, "can I take this material used in this application and apply it in my product" or "how can I reduce material or use it better"? They are inspired by something they see in nature or in a dream.  There are some really talented people out there who are true innovators. There are also people out there that are paid innovators with degrees in chemistry, materials science, and engineering.There are followers and there are doers and innovation is a game between the two schools.

There are also two schools that view innovation different, simply put old school/new school. Old schoolers view status quo and new schoolers, honestly don't care about acceptance. They don't care at this point about what you think or what's going on in the business. They are underground. Chances are you are one or the other.  The old schoolers may move into innovation with experience and $ and investors and $ and time. The new schoolers don't care about making money (some may...) Call it a company, but new schoolers are really a collective of like types. They ask "what if" and they bounce ideas, and they take risks. Big risks that sometimes don't pay off, but every once in a while.

How does this come back into sustainability?

The topic of "green business" "eco-friendly" and sustainability is coming into its age. The Dow Jones Sustainability Index and businesses publishing Corporate Sustainability reports are real. There is market research that show consumers are willing to spend their money on companies who account for environmental decisions in their business practices. Some businesses have seized this new paradigm shift and some are playing catch-up. The ones playing catch-up are asking themselves, "who can do this for us"? "how much money I am going to have to invest"? Are these companies green-washing or are they taking a serious look at their operations or materials?

Old schoolers are uncomfortable disrupting a good thing. They believe the company is under control and don't need to improve. Sustainability is like un-peeling an onion and it stinks. It stinks to the tune of a lot of dollars and time.

What's my point? Innovation.

Status quo with the rest or long-term sustainable life, company, earth.

New schoolers view the stinky onion as leading to breakthoughs.

There are a lot industries where breakthrough technologies will determine our continued existence like power and medicine. There are industries like sports and recreation that won't determine our existence, but serve to fulfill our soul and well-being. Even though the sports industry and the snowboarding industry is small compared to multi-billion dollar global companies, industries watch each other. People are influenced by others actions. People can utilize their buying power and start trends.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Did snowmaking save our winter?

What a pathetic winter! It seems like this winter never really happened or we were cheated out of our season passes. I know,  I know.... you can't judge this winter by 2010-2011 snowfall amounts in the US, nor can you judge it over the last 150 (well maybe), but really we got ripped off by mother nature this year!

Towards the beginning of the season, many resorts relied on snowmaking equipment to lay down their base. Some resorts in the southeast got to watch it melt time-after-time again. Heavenly did the best they could to crank out large amounts thanks to some pretty sweet equipment-but that's a lot of acreage, Mammoth was bummed early on, and then Colorado finally got some snow. Now in March it seems like people are breathing a sigh of relief due to Miracle March or have moved on to spring.

Here's the deal though, there was a lot of snowmaking this year! That takes the right temperature, which some of us got, but it also takes a lot of water from reservoirs or sources on the ski resorts. Now this blog focuses on sustainability, but you can't deny that when it comes to getting to snowboard or not getting to snowboard most people are chanting, "crank up the guns" and "fire em up" or were watching resort webcams in hopes of seeing the snowmaking crew out there or the snowmaking machines on spreading the love.

Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to make it snow more. You can be a voice and you can advocate and educate yourself on climate change, but it doesn't make it snow more right now when you want it to.  I joined Protect Our Winters a few months ago and encourage you to visit the site and to link from their site to other educational resources. I believe it's a good to have a voice and to educate people on the issues.

Which brings me back to our current winter and current events over snowmaking, droughts, and water availability. There is a big debate going on right now over water rights that involves the ski industry. The National Ski Area Association is suing the US Forest Service over a water rights clause. It's in the Wall Street JournalESPN, and outlined in their memo. The debate has been on-and-off since the 1980s, but the fact that this is making the news this season again when resorts are making a lot of snow kinda hits home. Who has the right to own the water, the land owner or the permit owner? This does ruffle some political feathers.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Recycled Snowboard T-shirts: aka "My PET snowboard tee, isn't he adorable?"

I mostly talk about boards on my blog and what materials and process tweaks make them sustainable. Clothing is probably the most well-known and marketed item to promote “green”, “eco-friendly”, and “sustainable” products. You've got your organic cotton, hemp, and recycled PET...and new materials being developed as we speak. Recycled bottles go in one end of the magic grinder and a coat comes out the end.

Wait, not so easy. How many bottles? Is this really saving the earth or just making us look cool?

In the snowboarding community,  it's old news that two of the largest corporations, Burton and Mountain Dew have partnered to bring you a line of recycled clothing and outerwear, part of Burton's Green Mountain Project. A few t-shirt styles have been released and sold only in flagship stores with more products to come in 2012-2013. 

Burton X Mountain Dew "Flake" tee.

Burton isn't the only company trying this approach, but perhaps the largest and most mainstream. Companies such as Lib Tech, Billabong, Nike, Patagonia, Volcom, Roxy, Dakine, Oakley, and others also have recycled outerwear. 

Roxy Pearl 

Billabong Recycler Series

LibTech Recycler Jacket

Will the Burton/Mountain Dew (Pepsi Co.) partnership finally bring environmental awareness to the snowboard masses? That's another blog. Mine is on the science side, so let's look at what happens in the magic grinder to make it happen.

PET aka rPET aka polyethylene terephthalate:

Also known as #1 plastic marked near the bottom of bottles commonly used in soft drinks, juices, water, and peanut butter. Most outerwear that is transformed from recycled plastic bottles is PET. This plastic can also be recycled into fiber for polyester carpet, fabric for t-shirts, athletic shoes, fiberfill for coats, and sleeping bags1.

When you toss your plastic bottles into a recycling bin, the first step is collection of the material and preparation for it's transformation into it's new re-purposed life.

Boardroom EcoApparel has a great graphic to illustrate.
The containers are picked up from a recycling center (be it community or one contracted by the manufacturer) and are then separated by types of plastic, indicated by the # on the bottom and also by color.

The foreign materials are removed, such as metal, labels, and caps. Next, the containers are crushed and shredded into flakes and then washed. The plastic flakes can also be melted again and formed into pellets. PET fabrics are created by spinning the PET flakes into a thread-like yarn. Below is a diagram of the process. The thread-like yarn is then used in the process of manufacturing. This is when the yarn enters the outerwear manufacturing process to become either a t-shirt, jacket, or pants.

Photo: PET flakes from NAPCOR

Afterwards, the product is ready for you to wear and you can be happy that you conserved some landfill space!

Interesting Facts:

-19 20oz. PET bottles yield enough fiber to make an X-large t-shirt or 1 sq ft. of carpet
-63 2oz. PET bottles equal one sweater
-14 20oz. PET bottles equal fiberfill for ski jacket
-As of 2005, 23.1% of 5.075 billion tons produced in the U.S. were collected from recycling (