STOKE Certified : The First Ground-up Resort Sustainability Assessment

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By Jesse Huffman

Whether you're sneaking into the woods to chase down the latest dump of powder, or rallying through the park, snowboarding creates amazing connections with the places we ride. Now just imagine your local hill shutting down for the entire winter due to lack of snow—a grim prospect that's become a yearly gamble with the advent of climate change. As we saw in Paris last December, leaders around the world are starting to take climate change seriously, finally. But as the snowsports community, we've never been satisfied with waiting for progress, and in the case of tackling climate change, we can't afford to sit in the lodge until our government steps up to the task. So how do we go about protecting the places where we ride?

The folks at STOKE Certified think a good place to start is by voicing support for sustainability with our lift tickets. For most of us, our favorite runs and community ties are at ski resorts. Oddly, for an industry in the cross hairs of shrinking snowpacks and inconsistent winter coverage, it's hard to tell where the needle is on sustainability—some resorts pour PR resources into touting a recycling program, while smaller resorts running on 100-percent renewable energy might fly under the radar. One thing is clear though: ski resorts need us just as bad as we need them: according to the National Ski Area Association (NSAA) the 2013-14 season saw an estimated 7.5 billion dollars in direct spending at US ski resorts.

"Sustainability can be sort of a nebulous concept," says Carl Kish, STOKE Certified Co-founder. "We want to help educate the riding public so they can make choices that positively impact local mountain communities, alpine environments, and the next generation of shredders. If the riding community starts using their wallets to support those ski areas who are making a difference, then we’ll see a monumental shift in the ski resort industry."

Mt. Abram, going solar.

Mt. Abram, going solar.

STOKE Certified offers the first ground-up ski and snowboard resort sustainability assessment and certification system (you may remember the Ski Area Citizens Coalition "report card," but its ranking was voluntarily self-report by resorts). Co-founded by Dr. Jess Potning, the first Masters and PhD degree holder on sustainable surf tourism, STOKE Certified uses over 150 comprehensive sustainability assessment criteria to help resorts establish a benchmark of where they're at and create a "roadmap to compliance." From management to environmental and even community impacts, the assessment is a holistic look at a resort's entire operations. Once resorts have made progress, independent evaluators visit the resort, and assess if the standards have been met—awarding Stoke Certified or two higher-tier certifications, Sustainable or Best Practice.

You might wonder if resorts can "afford" to go sustainable. But despite volatile and inconsistent winters, NSAA estimates that ski resort capital expenditures averaged 260 million dollars each year since the 2009-10 season. Kish points out that the ski resort business model is changing dramatically. The pressures of climate change, and the public demanding more and more transparency, are forcing resorts to think about longer-term strategies.

"The common misconception about sustainability is that it’s an extra expense," says Kish. "Instead, sustainability management should be perceived as a more resourceful and strategic allocation of funds within your existing budget."

Right now, Mt. Ashland, Oregon, Diamond Peak, Nevada, China Peak, California and Mt. Abram, Maine are all on their way to being being STOKE certified by the 2016-17 season. But it's going to take a lot more work to make this certification an industry-wide practice. Kish mentions the success of LEED certification (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) from the US Green Building Council (USGBC), which is a standard that more and more new building projects around the world are choosing to meet. LEED is taking off globally, but it's been around for over 20 years. So time is one factor. Another is public demand.

"By creating demand for sustainability from within the riding community," says Kish, "STOKE will catalyze and enable operators to implement innovative sustainable practices—so our culture will continue to thrive and overcome the environmental, socio-cultural, and economic challenges of the future."