I was in Whistler in July and was able to sit down with Arthur DeJong, Whistler Blackcomb’s Planning and Environmental Resource Manager. He had much to say about the sustainable development of the mountains, alternate energy projects, and how environmental policies have changed over the years since he has worked there. Here are the burning questions I asked him:
What is your biggest goal with Whistler Blackcomb’s environmental impact?
“To achieve a zero operating footprint. When you look at all the elements that it takes to run this, that looks so daunting, so impossible. But we have made some very sizeable steps in having much less of a footprint in how we operate, mostly with waste and energy.”
How did you get here?
“I came here in 1980; I actually started before Blackcomb opened. I walked across the Whistler landfill, which is now the centre of Whistler Village, and if I would have hypothesized at that time that there’d be two million skier visits annually and there’d be several billion dollars in infrastructure in that second part of the valley, they would have drug tested me and sent me to a mental asylum. It was beyond anyone’s imagination. I was interviewed in an Atco trailer, which was the Blackcomb administration building. So when you ask how it started, this place was frontier.”
What brought about environmental awareness in the area?
“Our first real wake up call on environmentalism happened in 1993. I was the Operations Manager at the time. My responsibility was for the day-to-day operations of Blackcomb and we had a fuel spill just downstream of Christine’s restaurant. Over 800 gallons of diesel fuel would enter a fish-bearing stream, pretty much down the centre of the mountain here. It was the most difficult thing I had ever dealt with, and I was a paramedic then, so I was used to dealing with a lot of tragedy, but the mountain operation and myself personally, we were trained for great due diligence towards guest safety, towards staff safety, but we had no due diligence for environmental safety.
“The reason why this one incident was such a spear in the chest was that, upon examining why it happened, it was completely human error in its design, in its operation, in its placement. So we had an early wake up call. It’s one of those times where you wake up and you’re at an intersection: you realize you’re a problem and you have to make that choice of: Do we continue? Do we stop? Or do we become a part of the solution? And that’s when it started.
“The history of environmentalism in Vancouver, with Greenpeace and David Suzuki, there was an advocacy movement, but there was not a movement in business, not a strong one. There were some forerunners, like Patagonia, that really put us on the edge, and not really sure how to move forward with it. And certainly, myself individually, I had no formal training in environmental stewardship, but what we learned from the onset was partnerships. When I peered into the environmental culture, what I found was a complete separation, a polarization between environmental groups and businesses and politicians, which to some degree still exists, but it’s changed a lot.
“The other thing that I quickly learned was, in reading environmental literature that talked about needing to do this for future generations, I started reading more and more data at the macro level for the UN and I quickly realized that 70% of the people alive today will be alive mid-century. And then you look at issues like climate change, where now we’ve just crested about 400 parts per million carbon in the atmosphere, just accelerating; we have to fix this now. This is not about tomorrow.
“It is also very much a part of our business, it’s made our business stronger by paying attention to how we use resources, whether it be the natural environment here or the imports like fossil fuels and all the materials that it takes to run a ski area. Certainly it matters for future generations, but if this generation doesn’t figure it out…”
How does that reflect in the staff that is hired?
One of the things that we are blessed with here in terms of demography is that about 60% of our staff, in fact, I think it’s even higher than that right now, are below the age of 30. We’re predominantly run by Gen Y and they get it far more than my generation gets it. So they become our champions, our doers, the grassroots movement.
“This is riddled by complications because you can look at Whistler, you can look at what we are and say, What’s relevant about Whistler in a world that is exceeding its capacity? What role do we play? That becomes complicated. I will say two things: one is that, if we can prove that becoming a zero operating business is possible, we become a global model.
“According to the UN World Tourism Organization, about 8-10% of the global economy is tourism. We can influence 10%. We believe that. And we’re going at it. The counter to that is, Does tourism really matter? If we go up another two or three degrees Celsius, economies fall apart…
“My point to that is it’s not just about environmental sustainability. In a planet where we are going to take on two billion more people this century, the only way that we’re going to pull it off is in partnerships. Tourism is one of the most powerful tools to break cultural divides. It is cultural glue. We experienced that through the Olympics. So we certainly see and are very involved with a number of social initiatives, both regionally and globally, and are integrated in terms of environmental and social [contexts]. It’s complex. It’s certainly not linear and it certainly hasn’t played itself out.
“We don’t live in interesting times, we live in defining times. And that’s what drives us in terms of business: Yes, money is our lifeblood, we need to do well in the short term, but if we don’t keep an equal eye on the longer term and take the steps that will allow us to be a global inspiration, we may miss the mark.
“The upside to it all is, and there are many successes and failures, but we certainly have been experiencing a great deal of benefits in that our environmental performance and social performance is a recruitment and retention tool for staff. It’s a positive feedback loop: the greener our brand, the greener the employee we will attract. This is Gen Y, they are Googling everyone, they’re all over it. Our guests see that we’re trying and that does raise our brand.
“I can’t put a hard number on that, but I can put a hard number on our resource management in terms of waste reduction, carbon and electrical consumption reductions. We save about three quarters of a million to a million dollars annually just on those elements of our operation. So there is a direct, short term business gain as well. But if we are going to be a compelling model to global tourism, we have to prove in the short term that it works in the business model. I go straight to E=M: Environmental choices that we make do include our short term bottom line, as well as our long term, that’s the challenge.
“For example, we have hydrogen buses in the valley and it’s good intent, but hydrogen is not the solution, as we know now. Carbon offsetting, we choose not to carbon offset because we want to take the money inside our own operating footprint where we can buy it, touch it, measure it and validate it. That’s not to say that carbon offsetting is wrong, it’s not, but those are the tough biofuels. We almost got into buying biofuels, and didn’t in the last few months before we were going to make a commitment, and that was the right choice.”
What do you hope the experience is like for visitors?
“It’s sort of an umbrella statement, but it’s this: To protect. To share. To inspire. It’s not what we say, it’s what we actually do. But in the doing, we share the stories of the doing and hopefully that in itself makes the difference. It’s endless how much we can be a teacher. But to be a compelling teacher, you have to actually DO it. Especially if you’re a business for profit. We have a lot of work to do.”
How can Whistler Blackcomb become sustainable?
“There’s a renewable energy, micro hydro project in Fitzimmons, the river that goes through the centre of Whistler Blackcomb, that produces annually what we consume. That project is there because we wanted it to be there. There’s no way that that ever would have happened without a tremendous amount of will on our company’s part. We had to fight for that project for seven years. There’s an example there: The amount of energy that we take off the grid goes back on the grid.
“We’ve reduced our waste by just over 60% since 2000. Most of our food, what’s left, will be handled by our staff and put into composting. You’ll see a lot of staff taking the trays around to the tables, so the guest doesn’t have the opportunity to misplace the organic contents of what’s on their plate.
“We made some significant reductions in hydro electric use in specific facilities by making them energy smart. That’s made a difference for us. We probably use about 35-40% of the paper we used to use, thanks to Gen Y – they get it. They’re not printing out document after document. For paycheques, we no longer produce them in paper at all. There’s a lot more to do there, but when you start to look at the numbers, our graphs show major impacts already. We believe in that long term vision and to tell the stories of it, whether it’s our carpooling or our white bike program. We have bikes positioned outside next to our main administration buildings, so staff can jump on a white bike instead of getting in a car [from building to building].
“We have the Habitat Improvement Team. It’s Whistler Blackcomb facilitated and we invited people from the community – guests, tourists ? to join us every second week. In the evening, we’d go out and we do fish enhancements, trail erosion improvements, get waste out of the park, help build new interpretation and seating areas, specifically for NGOs and community organizations, not stuff on Whistler Blackcomb.
“We also have an employee environmental fund, so when you join Blackcomb, you’re invited to participate, whereby for every dollar that you contribute, we also have another Whistler Blackcomb foundation, which contributes a dollar. A committee of staff every year will award the money to different environmental projects within the community.
“There are a few initiatives that we have ongoing. The Whistler Blackcomb Foundation is focused on social needs throughout the corridor. Since 1992, it’s raised over seven million dollars through partnerships. So it has had some significant impacts. We have inner city kids that come up here that we work with. We take youth off the streets, some of which have rebuilt their lives partially through us and become ski instructors here. That social element is very important to us.
“As a tourist, when I hear there’s a beautiful place, what inspires me more to go visit it is the stories of the people who live and operate in those places and whether they have actually taken care of those natural resources. It’s one thing to say you’re a beautiful place to visit in terms of nature, that would be added confidence when the guest gets there, but the stewardship of the place will strongly validate their choice for coming. Indirectly, it really matters. That is the second question I ask: It’s a beautiful place, but is it taken care of? Or will I go there and have to struggle with it?
Which is why you do the work that you do here.
“I’ll have a shovel in my hand to the final hour. My soul tells me that you never give in, you never give up, you just keep doing what you think is right. What will be will be. I think you have to find peace in that. This morning I read in the newspaper that we’re over 400 parts per million in carbon and the North American continent has had its warmest, I believe it was June, on record. I can’t deny that that’s going on, but to drop the shovel is to give in…
“My own spiritual demeanour is that, I’m left with my soul and my soul is an accumulation of what I actually did. So if I perish, I’ll still have a soul that actually tried to make a difference, and that will keep me stabilized under any condition, under any assault, any challenge.”
Lauren Everest, the Public Relations Supervisor of Whistler Blackcomb, was also there for the conversation and added: “When you’re standing at the top of the mountain and you’re looking down the valley, it goes on for days, and you realize that you are a part of something much, much bigger. There’s something very peaceful about that feeling…
“I think there is a huge spiritual component to being out here: you’re by yourself, you’re quiet, there’s no noise, there’s that fresh smell, it’s such a sensory experience that you can’t help but feel, regardless of what your beliefs are, you are a part of a bigger entity. I think that’s a huge component, whether or not people actually realize it’s spiritual or not.”
Arthur finishes: “There are lots of imperfections here; we have to be very honest about that. That’s a growing connectedness that we need to continue to build and nurture. People don’t run away from Whistler going, ‘What a mess.’ They don’t. We’re getting enough right.
“Our job in tourism, and our vision here, our mission, is to enhance that experience. And I can argue that many things we’ve done may have missed the mark, but I can also say that we’re getting it. We’re getting there.”
So, is Whistler getting it right? Why do you agree or disagree? What has your experience there been like?
Here is a video showing Whistler and the surrounding area from a plane: