Green Mountain

How Sugarloaf is tackling climate change

Green Mountain

How Sugarloaf is tackling climate change

By Katherine Englishman
Photography by Matt Cosby

Issue: November 2020

Ask any dedicated skier or rider, and they will surely tell you that the spirit of Sugarloaf arises from the mountain’s devoted community of winter lovers. Sugarloafers are a zealous bunch, and many have found their raisons d’être as lifelong patrons of the mountain’s snow-capped peaks and epic terrain.

“Sugarloaf breeds this feeling of skiing mania,” says Tom Butler, vice president of skier services at Sugarloaf Mountain. “People identify themselves with this mountain. They love how hard it is, and wear that like a badge of honor.” Butler would know. He’s worked at the mountain since starting as a ski instructor in 1992 and has witnessed many of the mountain’s iterations, including the development of its next one.

Since 2010, when the resort released an outline for its major investments over the next decade, called the Sugarloaf 2020 Road Map, many of its plans have come to fruition. Among the completed projects that mark the progress: 600-plus acres of expanded terrain in Brackett Basin, New England’s premier cat skiing operation on Burnt Mountain, and improvements to on-mountain eateries and accommodations. But it’s not done yet.

The mountain will continue to expand trails, upgrade features, enhance infrastructure, and invest more into year-round activities such as hiking, mountain biking, and outdoor entertainment, all while keeping its core values intact. From ski bums to season passholders, the mountain is truly everyone’s snowy domain, and there’s an undeniable sense of comradery here.

This tight-knit community is in it for the long haul, and if you’re lucky, you’ve inherited the title of Sugarloafer from a long line of skiers that came before you. Butler is keen to point out that, as the mountain closes in on its goals for the future, that legacy is what everyone wants to protect. But the threat facing Sugarloafers doesn’t come from developers or greedy corporations; it’s the impending effects of climate change that could change skiing and riding as we know them.

If little or no action is taken immediately to remove carbon from the atmosphere, eastern and western states should expect to see more winter precipitation fall as rain instead of snow, according to “Economic Contributions of Winter Sports in a Changing Climate,” a 2018 report by climate advocacy group Protect Our Winters. The report paints a grim picture for New England: Northeast states are warming slightly faster than southern ones, and the total amount of seasonal snowfall in the region could decrease by 10 to 30 percent by the end of the century. 

Considering that a single degree can mean the difference between rain and snow, these stats have jolted the resort into action, and a carbon-neutral goal was folded into its 2030 plans, which were unveiled in February. However, a desire to preserve their winter playground had already taken hold in the community. During Sugarloaf’s annual October Homecoming weekend last year, members of the mountain’s Homeowner’s Association were eager to hear the resort’s plans regarding global warming, says Butler. “The public was way more educated about climate change and sustainability,” he says. “People were digging in and asking tough questions, which really drove it home for us, so we set a date to become carbon neutral.” 

The team took on the task with the determination of a powder-hungry skier scoring first chair on the best day of the season. In 2019 Sugarloaf president and general manager Karl Strand hired Kate Ray, who’s been a Sugarloafer for 20 years, to lead the project as sustainability and climate challenge coordinator. “There were already so many people doing the work to make the mountain more sustainable, and no home for that work to get the attention it deserves,” says Ray. “We reengaged with our environmental efforts, joined the National Ski Area Association’s Climate Challenge, and now things are in full force.” 

The Climate Challenge is a voluntary program that began eight years ago to help ski areas reduce emissions and be effective climate advocates. Ray credits the mountain’s parent company, Boyne Resorts, with putting the initiative front and center. She also acknowledges support from the Governor’s Energy Office, which connects environmental directors across the state to help proliferate carbon-neutral businesses in Maine. Through the connections made by the Governor’s Energy Office, Ray says, Sugarloaf will benefit from the exchange of information with other entities working to significantly curb their emissions.

“I’m so glad they’re pushing that,” says Ray. “It’s great to have that amount of support at the state level, because that’s what you need to get things done.” Since ski areas operate according to nontraditional business models, sustainability changes need state-level strategy and muscle behind them.

To completely eliminate its carbon “bootprint,” Sugarloaf is targeting energy use—specifically, transitioning to solar power. “Seventy percent of our carbon footprint is from electricity,” says Ray. “Snow machines, chairlifts, and lodges use a lot of energy.” While energy use may be unavoidable, reliance on fossil fuels is not. “We’re looking at how to reduce our emissions by upgrading to more efficient equipment that would be completely solar powered.” 

Pivoting to 100 percent renewable energy takes time, money, and the technology to get there. Ray says none of these elements are quite where they need to be just yet, but given that oil and gas are increasingly scarce and expensive, and are major players in winter’s disappearance, it’s never been a better time to make the switch.

Efficiency Maine, an independent administrator for energy-efficiency programs, has worked alongside Ray to help find budget-friendly solutions to fund and grow the mountain’s most important solar projects. “It’s a great relationship,” says Ray. And it’s one that is key to Sugarloaf reaching its carbon-zero goal. As Ray explains, the necessary technology (such as electric shuttles, groomers, and snowcats that would run off solar) is still evolving. Efficiency Maine helps the company think outside the box, so projects progress more quickly. “We found we’ve been able to reduce our electricity use even more because of our work with them,” says Ray. 

Whether it’s about a solar project or expanding terrain, relationships are what make Sugarloaf tick. This isn’t a mountain of weekenders with nothing more than a favorite après spot to make them feel connected—it’s where skiing and a love for place form an unshakeable bond. Moreover, time on the mountain broadens one’s perspective and inspires skiers and riders to understand how much is at stake for winter lovers who want to share this lifestyle with the next generation. “There’s a responsibility to ensure that legacy will be there,” says Butler. “They want it for their grandkids.”

After becoming a mother, Ray says, she realized she had a role to play in preserving the future of skiing at Sugarloaf for her children and others. “As a ski resort where people come to enjoy the outdoors, we have a specific obligation to use that experience to make a difference,” says Ray. “We have this natural beauty that inspires so many guests to challenge themselves, and while they are looking out over the Carrabassett Valley, they can see what they want to save, why they care, and that they want to ski into the future.” 

Share The Inspiration