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Big Sky Resort President/COO Wants Ski Resorts to go Carbon Free. He Says Big Sky Can Get There by 2030.

SNO panel discussion preview, Part 3: Q&A with Taylor Middleton, Big Sky Resort president and COO

Looking northeast from the top of Lone Mountain at Big Sky Resort with the Big Couloir and the tram dock below. Photo by Joseph T. O'Connor
Looking northeast from the top of Lone Mountain at Big Sky Resort with the Big Couloir and the tram dock below. Photo by Joseph T. O'Connor

EDITOR’S NOTE: Big Sky SNO (Sustainability Network Organization) is launching its Big Sky Community Climate Action Plan at The Independent theater on Thursday Feb. 16. The event, which starts at 7 p.m., features short films, a panel discussion with four leading experts in their respective fields moderated by MoJo Managing Editor Joseph T. O’Connor, and a keynote address by world-renowned mountaineer Conrad Anker.

Joining Anker on the panel will be climate change ecology expert Cathy Whitlock, Big Sky Resort President and COO Taylor Middleton, and Western Sustainability Exchange Executive Director Lill Erickson. Ahead of the event, MoJo asked each panelist three questions as part of short Q&A previews. Here’s the third installment, this with Taylor Middleton. – Mountain Journal

by Joseph T. O’Connor

Big Sky Resort set an ambitious goal last year as a key component in what it’s calling the “ForeverProject”: having emissions cut to net zero by 2030. Taylor Middleton, the resort’s president and COO, is helping lead the sustainability effort not just for Big Sky but for all of the resorts inside its owner Boyne’s portfolio.

“We have 10 ski resorts and about a dozen properties around the country,” Middleton said in an interview last month with MoJo. “Getting to net zero is a lot of work,” he added. “It's hard. It's complicated and it's multifaceted. I’ve really enjoyed learning about each of those facets it's going to take to get to zero carbon emissions within the next seven years.”

Middleton, in his 42nd winter with Big Sky Resort, first started as a hotel desk clerk in January 1981 and operated a bulldozer while helping launch the resort’s first snowmaking system before becoming Big Sky’s general manager in 1996.

John Kircher, former general manager of the resort and president of Boyne’s western operations who is credited with bringing the Lone Peak Tram to Big Sky, passed away last month. Middleton worked directly for Kircher for 16 years until the latter left Big Sky to run Crystal Mountain in Washington, but the two remained close until his passing. Now, Middleton is taking a page from his former boss’s creative approach to work and problem-solving and applying it to Big Sky’s next challenge: sustainability.

Mountain Journal: What role does Big Sky Resort play in SNO’s Climate Action Plan, and what does that role looks like?

Taylor Middleton: In the SNO Climate Action Plan, they've measured the carbon footprint of the Big Sky community and that's a really basic step in anybody’s sincere efforts to get to zero [emissions]. The first thing that any organization or any community needs to do is benchmark where their current carbon footprint is and that's what SNO has done in the last couple of years. And that's what Big Sky Resort has done, and all Boyne resorts have quantified very specifically how much carbon we produce and where we are producing that carbon. In that sense, we are aligned with SNO.

The difference between SNO and Big Sky Resort is that SNO isn't the one producing the carbon. It's a nonprofit organization in the community.
Taylor Middleton, president and COO of Big Sky Resort, will sit on a MoJo-moderated panel Thursday Feb. 16 at The Independent as part of Big Sky SNO launching its Climate Action Plan
Taylor Middleton, president and COO of Big Sky Resort, will sit on a MoJo-moderated panel Thursday Feb. 16 at The Independent as part of Big Sky SNO launching its Climate Action Plan
They're just providing technical resources and gathering the community together for discussion, which is a noble cause. Big Sky Resort, we’re the ones producing the carbon. So, it's going to cost us the real dollars to make the conversion and we have the opportunity to make the conversion with a commitment of mind and money. SNO is a cheerleader. Big Sky Resort, we’re the players on the field.

MOJO: The act of gauging one’s carbon footprint and making real changes on the ground is complicated. What actual changes is Big Sky Resort implementing and what limits might climate change impose upon development in Big Sky and on the mountain?

T.M.: Is it going to create less development? I don't think it will. Will it create better design and development? Yes, it will. It's going to require much-improved standards in construction. Adopting the newest construction standards which incorporated within them are more energy efficient buildings. It will require us going into existing buildings and machinery and making them more efficient and changing their source of power. For instance, we need to move away from carbon fuels and move to electricity and electricity is generally considered greener because a lot of it is generated from clean sources like water or nuclear or wind or solar. So, building buildings that consume less energy and making sure that the energy that's powering those buildings is clean.

And then the same thing for vehicles and machinery that are powered by carbon fuels, diesel, gasoline, propane. If they're going to stay on those fuel sources, those machines need to be more efficient. And then ultimately, we need to move those machines to either electricity, which works for small machines, or our clean fuels—biodiesel, for instance, or hydrogen—for big machines that electricity just isn't going to be able to power.
[Boyne Resorts] are partnering and communicating and helping the flywheel of momentum spin so as many people as possible can embrace sustainability. – Taylor Middleton, Big Sky Resort president and COO

MOJO: Auden Schendler [vice president of sustainability] of Aspen Skiing Company says a measuring stick for sustainability should be in action and not rhetoric. Talk about the action Big Sky Resort is taking and what does that look like in 10 years?

T.M.: Well, Aspen has led the ski industry toward sustainability. And Steven Kircher, the president of Boyne Resorts, along with the three other largest ski industry companies, Alterra Vail and Powder, have come together into the Mountain Collaborative and set goals for these four big companies, which represent a huge sector of the American ski industry. And that is one of the tools that we and Steve Kircher and Boyne are using. We're partnering and communicating and helping the flywheel of momentum spin so as many people as possible can embrace sustainability.

What does that look like in 10 years? If Big Sky Resort is 100 percent carbon free in 10 years, it isn't going to make a big difference. But if the entire ski industry from coast to coast is carbon free, that's bigger. If we can influence all of our customers—all of our advocates, all of our constituency within our resorts, [and] the millions and millions of skiers—if they can see we ski resorts at net zero, maybe they'll be motivated or see the way to get to net zero themselves. What I'm really talking about is advocacy: not only doing what we're doing but using this as a platform for hope and advocacy that other people buy into. I hope at the end of 10 years, what we're talking about today is a lot bigger than we are individually.

Visit theindybigsky.com/events for more information about the launch of SNO’s Climate Action Plan and the panel discussion at The Independent theater in Big Sky on Thursday Feb. 16 at 7 p.m.

Joseph T. O'Connor
About Joseph T. O'Connor

Joseph T. O’Connor is Mountain Journal’s Managing Editor. He has an extensive background in multimedia storytelling including writing, editing, video broadcast and investigative journalism. Joe most recently served as Editor-in-Chief for Mountain Outlaw magazine and the Explore Big Sky newspaper in Big Sky, Montana. He has published work in several publications from the East Coast to California, including Newsweek, CNN, and Skiing magazine, among others. Joe moved to Montana in 2012 after taking graduate journalism courses at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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