Mountain Journal recently reported that the famous Colorado resort of Vail had announced its intention to ‘commit to zero net emissions (partly through use of renewable energy to run its operations), zero waste to landfill and zero net operating impact to forests and habitat by the year 2030’.

Vail is a town built around ski field development. While only about 5,500 people live there (supported by a large ‘down valley’ community in towns like Avon and Edwards who must commute to work) it hosts as many as 2.8 million visitors a year.

Aspen, located to the south west, is probably better known for its sustainability efforts, but Vail’s commitment is ambitious. The recent announcement on energy and waste came from Vail Resorts Inc, the company that runs the resort operations. There is also a commitment from the Town of Vail, based in the valley below the resort, to become North Americas first sustainable tourist destination certified through the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

As with other sustainability announcements by a range of resorts in the northern hemisphere, this points to what should be possible here with some vision and leadership.

This initiative aims to get buy in from locals and local businesses (Vail is composed of wall to wall chain stores, some of which are already known for their sustainability programs) and aims to ‘build in’ more responsible behaviour by visitors by making sure infrastructure and town policy encourage this as part of life when people visit the resort. According to a report in the Denver Post, the aim is to ‘build a vibrant economy anchored in a healthy ecology’.

Significantly, this program seeks to involve both locals and tourists and help build greater connections between these two groups in the process.

The Post says “A lot of the preparatory work was carried out by Magdalena Muir, a Canadian professor of energy science and an auditor with Green Destinations. She spent a week measuring Vail’s progress toward ‘uniting locals and guests in efforts to build a vibrant economy anchored in a healthy ecology’. She measured Vail’s sustainability potential against 44 criteria. That includes tourism management, resource protection like open space and parks, asset protection, like Vail Resort’s Epic Promise, that delivers funds for conservation, interpretive sites for visitors, transportation infrastructure such as employee buses and bike lanes, wildlife protection, climate-change adaptation, recycling and energy-saving programs, affordable housing, employment and a general culture of sustainability.”

Jason Blevins, writing in the Post says:

The sustainability effort in Vail was born in 2013, as the valley prepared for the 2015 Alpine World Ski Championships. The first phase was enrolling local businesses in Sustainable Travel International’s “Actively Green” program. That program now counts more than 50 Vail businesses that are embracing sustainable business practices.

East West Partners has certified all seven of the Vail Valley properties it manages, including the Westin Riverfront Resort in Avon, a 232-room luxury hotel where more than 100 environmental initiatives have been launched, including an 18-bed community garden for employees.

“These certifications hold us accountable. It’s really about practicing what you preach,” said East West’s Derek Schmidt at a meeting with Muir, who was eager to hear about efforts to engage community, employees and guests in environmental goals.

Other business owners offered their work: Vail Valley Anglers launched bike-to-the-river fishing trips and encourages guests to bring their own water bottles. American Plumbing, Heating and Solar Inc. now sends three times more waste to recycling bins than the landfill. A short-term rental company switched all the light bulbs in its rental homes over to LED.

“It’s really brought a different level of awareness of what we could be doing and should be doing and how much is in our control,” said West Vail Liquor Mart co-owner Laurie Mullen, who installed energy-efficient cooling and lighting equipment to shave her utility bill by half. “We’ve found that so many sustainability strategies are within our control.”

“The network we have built is incredible and I’m inspired by what everyone is doing,” said Kim Langmaid, who serves on the Vail Town Council and is vice president of the Walking Mountain Science Center, where she heads up sustainability and stewardship programs. “Our hope, if that if this goes well for Vail, maybe a couple other communities will follow and we could do this at the state level.”