Aspen Skiing Co., Vail adds voices to ‘We Are Still In’ on climate action

Scott Condon - The Aspen Times

Aspen Skiing Co. joined business heavyweights such as Nike, Google, Apple and Campbell Soup Co. on Monday in signing an open letter declaring they will continue to support climate action to meet the Paris Agreement despite President's Trump pullout last week.

Skico joined the "We Are Still In" movement to make a statement that "we're going to push even harder" in response to Trump's decision, said Auden Schendler, the company's vice president of sustainability.

The open letter states, "The Trump administration's announcement undermines a key pillar in the fight against climate change and damages the world's ability to avoid the most dangerous and costly effects of climate change. Importantly, it is also out of step with what is happening in the United States."

The entire letter can be read at

More than 1,000 companies, universities and colleges, mayors and nonprofits signed the letter. They don't pledge to take specific action but generally say they will remain engaged to hold global warming below 2 degrees Celsius and accelerate the transition to a clear energy economy.

Nevertheless, Schendler insisted the letter goes beyond symbolism. He said it is a "call to arms" by major consumers of energy, and several smaller companies speaking in a unified voice. Their collective efforts can force utilities providing power to either start pursuing renewable energy or increasing it within their portfolio.

The city of Aspen also endorsed the effort, as did Aspen Brewing Co.

Skico will continue to push its energy provider, Holy Cross Energy, to provide more power from renewable sources, Schendler said. It will also step up its lobbying efforts on state and national energy policy issues.

"We're going to push hard on the state level to increase renewable energy and efficiency," he said.

In a quote supplied to organizers of the We Are Still In movement, Schendler said, "Aspen Skiing Company isn't just opposing withdrawal from Paris. We're going to fight it to the ground, and we're going to implement the Paris accords ourselves, in our business, in Colorado, and as soon as possible, nationally."

The Colorado ski industry was well represented in the open letter. Vail Resorts signed the document, as did Arapahoe Basin, Copper Mountain Ski Resort and Telluride Ski and Golf.

Even before the We Are Still In effort was publicized, Vail Resorts chairman and CEO Rob Katz released a statement Friday that said the company was "deeply saddened" by the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

"Climate change is a global challenge that requires global cooperation, and it is disheartening to see the United States pull away from working with the other 194 countries that were part of the Agreement," Katz said in the statement. "Vail Resorts will redouble our efforts to find significant ways to minimize our carbon footprint through reducing our energy use to help address one of the most serious challenges facing our worldwide community."

Outside of Colorado, the letter was endorsed by Boyne Resorts, the California Ski Industry Association, Deer Valley Resort, Killington Ski Resort, POWDR Corp., Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, Sugarbush Resort and Taos Ski Valley.

Basalt- and Boulder-based Rocky Mountain Institute was credited with being one of the parties that helped coordinate the We Are Still In statement. RMI typically avoids anything even vaguely hinting at political. However, it posted a statement on its website June 1 saying it was "greatly disappointed in President Trump's decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement."

The statement from CEO Jules Kortenhorst said Trump's action will significantly undermine global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. However, RMI also expressed optimism that the transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency will continue, thanks to the countries still committed to the Paris Agreement and companies, organizations and individuals in the U.S. that disagree with the federal government's direction.

"In the electricity system, renewable energy and natural gas together produced half of U.S. electricity supplies last year, while coal made up only 30 percent — the smallest share since officials started keeping track 70 years ago," RMI said on its website.

RMI's entire statement can be read at

Ski industry pleads for increase in foreign worker visa program amid historically low unemployment

With unemployment rates at historic lows in Colorado’s ski country, resorts support doubling H-2B visa program

Jason Blevins - The Denver Post

The ski industry is wading into a political storm with a plea for the federal government to bolster its temporary visa program for foreign workers as it contends with a worker shortage.

As unemployment rates reach historic lows — especially in Colorado’s resort-centric high country — the National Ski Areas Association is imploring the secretary of Homeland Security to grow the number of immigrant H-2B visas for seasonal, unskilled workers, an overture that defies President Donald Trump’s campaign promises to put “America first.”

Recent unemployment tallies in Colorado show the number of jobless has withered to 2.3 percent, a record-low seen only four times by any state in recent history and almost half of the nation’s unemployment rate.

With 31 ski areas and almost 13 million skier visits, Colorado hosts more than 20 percent of the nation’s ski traffic. Resort-anchored counties such as Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Routt, Gunnison and Grand have even lower rates of unemployment.

“One would have to ignore reality to refuse to acknowledge that the ski industry — and all related businesses in rural mountain communities — are in critical need of help with finding reliable seasonal workers to staff our businesses,” reads an NSAA letter dated May 24 and sent to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and senators from Colorado, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming and Idaho. “In short, allowing more H-2B visa workers will not take away jobs from American workers, particularly in the ski industry.”

Amid the Trump administration’s calls to curtail immigration, the 1,700-page omnibus spending bill authorized by Congress last month included a provision that gives the secretary of Homeland Security the ability to grow the number of H-2B visas from its long-standing cap of 66,000 by an additional 70,000. The venerable H-2B visa program offers foreign workers temporary, low-skilled jobs in landscaping, hospitality and tourism industries. Since 2004, the program has capped the number of annual H-2B visas at 33,000 in the winter and 33,000 in the summer.

The call to grow the visa program is contentious. Two Republican and two Democratic senators last month sent Kelly a letter urging the secretary not to grow the H-2B visa program, citing a risk to American workers.

“A large body of evidence suggests that our increasing reliance on the H-2B program cuts wages, pushes American workers out of jobs, and may, in some case, discourage them from ever applying again. Indiscriminate increases in the number of H-2B workers will only exacerbate these problems,” reads the letter from Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., David Perdue, R-Ga., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

In March, 31 senators — including Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner — sent a letter to Kelly urging him to audit the H-2B program to make sure small businesses could access any unused visas under the 66,000-visa cap.

“Failure to access these critical workers will harm small businesses, American workers, and the economy,” reads the letter.

Bennet’s office in 2015 said, after a temporary suspension of the program, that more than 300 Colorado businesses used workers on H-2B visas.

Trump, who has promised to put more Americans to work, has relied on H-2B visa workers at his golf courses and hotels. That gives the ski industry hope that the president might support an increase.

Colorado’s ski resort industry once relied heavily on foreign-worker visas, employing people from afar to man chairlifts, work in cafeterias and clean hotel rooms. But increasingly burdensome regulations have made the program untenable for Colorado’s operators. Resorts have to reimburse travel expenses for H-2B visa workers, which is challenging when recruiting employees from across the planet. Resorts must advertise job positions for several weeks in local communities to meet requirements for H-2B visas. Federal approval often arrives after the season starts, which doesn’t work for ski resorts heading into the holiday season. The industry has spent years lobbying lawmakers to exempt returning foreign workers from the 66,000-visa cap.

As Colorado’s economy improves, resort companies have struggled to lure temporary workers. The days of ski bums moving to ski towns for a season or two are fading. Discounted season passes are no longer an enticing employment lure. The popular J-1 visas for students often see workers from the Southern Hemisphere returning to college before the season ends.

To land workers, resorts have raised wages, with Vail Resorts bumping its minimum wage for entry-level jobs to $10 an hour. Aspen Skiing Co., which needs about 2,500 seasonal workers each winter, pays an entry-level wage of $11.75 an hour with a bonus for workers who stay for the entire season. The NSAA’s 2017 wage survey shows ski areas paying seasonal workers an average of $13.97 an hour. Resort operators such as Vail Resorts, which employs 20,000 at its peak, Aspen Skiing Co. and Powdr Corp. have revamped hiring practices as they scramble for employees. Operators now heavily subsidize housing to accommodate workers, with Vail, for example, directing $30 million toward employee housing around its resorts in Colorado, Utah and California.

Vail relies little on H-2B visas, with its annual use of the program largely unchanged in recent years.

“We support NSAA’s letter,” said Kelly Ladyga, spokeswoman for Vail Resorts, the largest ski-area operator in North America. “The number of our H-2B visas are flat year over year and represents a very small percentage of our total staffing needs.”

Aspen Skiing Co. once used more than a couple hundred H-2B visas for its workers, but when the economy soured, the company hired more local workers. As the economy improves, those Roaring Fork Valley locals have plenty of job options and the resort operator has battled to find workers. With heavy regulation on H-2B visas and federal approvals usually arriving too late in the year, the company now uses fewer than two dozen H-2B workers.

“It actually costs more. It’s not a bargain,” said Jim Laing, Aspen Skiing’s head of human resources, who suspects the unemployment rate in Pitkin County is even lower than 1.8 percent because so many locals have more than one job. “We are very supportive of the NSAA’s direction here. We would like the program to be a more predictable option.”

With the sinking jobless rate and Homeland Security given a chance to bolster H-2B numbers, the ski industry is making its move. Still, the seasonal worker visa program is “ridiculously partisan,” said Dave Byrd, NSAA’s director of regulatory affairs.

The left thinks the program takes away American jobs, and the right says Americans want those jobs.

Both sides, Byrd said, are wrong.

“Americans want year-round jobs with benefits,” he said. “Too often, I talk with senators and congressmen and staffers and they don’t understand we are talking about 66,000 jobs in an economy with 150 million jobs. There’s just a breathtaking amount of partisanship and belly aching going on about such a tiny sliver of jobs. There’s a lot of ignorance and posturing out there, but the reality is that this hurts businesses that rely on season employees and that gets lost in the political shuffle.”

By the numbers

March unemployment rates in U.S. ski states:

Colorado, 31 ski areas: 2.3 percent

New Hampshire, 28 ski areas: 2.8 percent

Maine, 20 ski areas: 3 percent

Utah, 14 ski areas: 3.1 percent

Vermont, 26 ski areas: 3.1 percent

California, 28 ski areas: 4.9 percent

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

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