TNEP Profile: Rick Cables, Vail Resorts

Vail Resorts

Breckenridge Ski Resort, a Vail Resorts property.

Vail Resorts is not just Vail ski resort. The company owns and operates 10 ski resorts in 5 different states. I’ve skied at 5 of those 10 resorts, plus many others that Vail Resorts doesn’t own. I think about the environmental professionals who manage the environmental impacts of these unique properties – wildlife and forest management, water use, waste management, the impact of climate change, and balancing recreation on US Forest Service land. My curiosity brought me to Vail Resorts headquarters in Broomfield, CO to speak with Rick Cables, Vail Resorts VP of Natural Resources and Conservation.

If you spent any time hiking, camping, or recreating in the National Forests of Alaska or Colorado, or in the Colorado State parks system, or have skied in any of Vail Resorts properties, then Rick Cables’ work has impacted your life. After a career with the US Forest Service and working for the State of Colorado, Rick now works with Vail Resorts managing their environmental programs.  

TNEP: When I reached out to Vail Resorts to speak with someone working in the environmental program, I didn’t know who to expect. It looks like you made some headlines when you came to Vail Resorts.

Rick: My mom actually worked for the US Forest Service. When I was kid growing up, I fondly remember intersecting with Forest Service people, rangers we’d have over for dinner. I fell in love with the people. These are hard working people. These are quality people and they are really passionate about taking care of the land. So when I was in high school, I told my mom I wanted to work for the Forest Service. I didn’t tell her I wanted to be a forester or a biologist or whatever; I just said I want to have a Forest Service. I went to forestry school in Flagstaff and all summer I fought fires. I just fell in love with it; everything about it.  

I had a long and fabulous career in the Forest Service. The last two jobs I had were the regional Forest Service director in Alaska. I was ahead of the Alaska Region during the Clinton administration. That was a really interesting political environment to take care of the 22 million acres of national forest up there. In 2001 I moved back to Colorado as the Regional Forester for the Rocky Mountain region. During my tenure, we had the Hayman Fire, the bark beetle event, so some really challenging issues.

Over the course of that you work with all sorts of private industries: logging, mining, the livestock industry. The ski industry in Colorado it’s a huge business and has had a long-standing public-private relationship with the Forest Service; most all of the big ski areas in the west are on National Forest.

I first got aquatinted with the ski industry in Taos, NM. I found in my relationship with the ski industry that the people that work in the ski industry are not so different than people who work with the Forest Service or the fish and wildlife service. They’re passionate professionals. They’re passionate to a great extent about the mountains. Yes, they love to ski or snowboard, but they’re passionate for the environment.

In 2011, I retired from the Forest Service and went to work for the state of Colorado. Governor Hickenoloper was merging Colorado State Parks with Colorado Division of Wildlife; two large state agencies. I applied for that job and was hired as the first director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. So I spent two years merging those two agencies.

TNEP: That’s quite an effort.

Rick: You just had wonderful people in the agencies: wildlife professionals, recreation professionals, people who were expert on trails; the whole gamut of expertise. I always think you’re lucky in this life if you work for an organization that is full of passionate people.

In about July of this past summer I felt like it was at a juncture of the creative early stages of putting the nuts and bolts of merging two cultures, it was going to a different stage of implementation and grinding more of the culture change. I thought I could either stay through that or pursue something else. And I just thought it was a juncture, a good fork in the road.

About the last half of my career I’ve been interested in pursuing conservation with a private company. I’ve worked for the public sectors. You’ve got the non-profit sector, which plays a huge role in conservation. And then you have the private sector, which I truly believe until we get the private sector in the United States engaged in supporting conservation, there’s so much of an engine in the private sector of funding, that we we’re not going to get as far as we could.

Through a really great set of circumstances I was able to come to Vail, a company that is really dedicated to obviously providing a wonder mountain experience, but also deeply concerned about sustaining the environment that they operate. So that led me to this role and you know I’m learning everyday.

I think Vail has already done some amazing things from a sustainability standpoint and we have a whole crew of young, talented environmental manager that are sprinkled around the mountains. The company’s got a really strong ethic toward the environment. So, that’s what led me here.

TNEP: Your work as an environmental manager directly impacts a vacation spot, a location, and an experience for the user. Vail has to rely on that beautiful environment. Do you and the environment folks you work with see it like that?

Rick: Some are direct and some are indirect. Part of our role is environmental compliance. There’s a whole arena around storing diesel and storing it up on the mountain. So for example, the groomers can’t come down the mountain and refuel. That’s horribly inefficient and wastes fuel. And to have a fuel farm halfway up a mountain that’s located on a National Forest that’s a pristine environment. You have to do it well. So part of our work is to maintain compliance; that we’re meeting the state and federal law. That is somewhat indirect, although you have to do it well.

Then you have, like our recycling program and our energy sustainability program. In the past the company set a goal to reduce energy consumption by 10%, which is a big ticket item. The company was able to accomplish that over a few years and then set another goal for an additional 10%. Right now we’re sitting at a savings of 15% of the initial baseline, which is huge. You directly save energy, but the impact on the environment is somewhat indirect. There’s lots of positive effects from energy consumption, but it’s not like you can see it tangibly on the ground immediately.

The third area is more direct. Let’s take Peak 6 as an example of an area that went through a 5 or 6 year process, working with US Forest Service, listening to public comment, and trying to design another pod of a lift and some runs in an area that could be done in an environmentally sensitive way; that would provide mitigation for the wildlife. The more direct things, when we do a project on a mountain, we want to do it well. That’s the thing that you can actually see, touch and feel. You look at how it lays on the land. You can look at the scenery impact. You can actually measure water and soil movement and stability.  

Copper Mountain

Storage tank on Copper Mountain, which is not owned by Vail Resorts

TNEP: What’s more challenging? Is it the day-to-day issues like compliance or the big items like dealing with climate change or a big project like Peak 6?

Rick: What’s challenging on the compliance side right now is that we have systems in place that allow us to track and have apples-to-apples comparisons. And to give tools to our environmental managers or mountain ops guys that they can use that will actually help us roll up the status of compliance. The company has expanded rather rapidly in the past several years and trying to have a very cogent, well thought out, systematic approach so the guys and gals on the ground have ways to measure.

On the big project stuff, it’s a challenge in a sense that a lot of those big projects are on public lands and have to go through a public process. Because it’s public land the public can say, “No.” That’s as it should be. It’s all of our land. Every American has a say in how their National Forests are managed. And you have a community that you’re a part of, like Breckenridge or Vail or south Lake Tahoe where our resorts are located. And we want to have a very strong, good neighbor relation with the community. If the community flat doesn’t want something that we want to do that might be good for our business, we have to consider that and we have to navigate that.

I think Breckenridge Peak 6 is an excellent example. Early on there were some significant concerns that were identified through the scoping and NEPA process. The things that were off-site, they weren’t really on the mountain, but they’re cumulative effects, like traffic, noise. There was a ton of work with the community to navigate the concerns and trying to scale the development that was light on the land but yet provided more intermediate terrain and all the objectives of the company. To me, what’s challenging and what’s fun about this work is that you expand the range of those things.

And then there’s a whole other category beyond that, which is more, how can we help the environmental even if it isn’t necessary related to the mountains or the land that we manage. For example, several years ago Vail was very instrumental in wind energy. Because Vail was large enough to do a lot of that with the idea that we could provide all of our energy from a renewable source. Because of the size of that we feel we made a difference in wind energy.

Another one was looking at the Hayman fire, south of Denver in the Pike National Forest. Knowing the role that the Hayman are plays in the Denver watershed, the company provided resources to do a bunch of restoration work on the Hayman burn. That’s not tied to one of our resorts, it’s more about what can we do good for the environment.

One of the terms we used in our leadership summit this year was called, “reimagining.” How would we reimaging Vail and Vail Resorts or is thought of from an environmental perspective? What would we do? What should we do? There are six corporate values and one of them is “Do Good” and it’s about the environment. They’ve kind of given our part of the organization the freedom to think and reimagine what this looks like. And that’s exciting. It’s kind of uncharted territory.  

TNEP: Now that you’re as a land user for Vail Resorts versus your previous role in managing forest land, what different perspectives are you having?

Rick: It’s always valuable to sit on the other side of the table.

I think it’s somewhat of an advantage for me and us a company that I was sitting on that other side of the table. I do think I understand the value system and the culture. Fundamentally they have to look after the public interest and that’s not easy to define sometimes. Being able to play a role for our company with that knowledge base and to be able to meet with people I know and work with is valuable.

TNEP: What cool or interesting experiences have you had in this role that you would not have had if you weren’t in this job?

Rick: Two things.

There was a law passed in November 2011 called the Ski Area Recreation and Enhancement Act, which basically provides more flexibility on National Forests to provide recreation year round, which is a really exciting prospect when you think about urban youth and urban families that may not ever get to the mountains because they’re either inhibited or financially don’t think they can afford it or don’t have the skills or the clothing or the equipment or all of the above. We feel like being able to expand what happens in the summer is a great opportunity to have our mountains become gateways to the outdoors. In some ways not dissimilar to a National Park where the public would go to a place where it’s a controlled environment and they get exposed to the beauty of the mountains.

Even riding a lift; we take it for granted those of us that ski. There’s a ton of young people out there who’ve never ridden a chair lift. If we can just get them to the mountain. They ride a chair, get up to the top of Vail or Breckenridge and there’s some things to do like a ropes course or a zip line in a beautiful mountain setting. Our feeling is we can start hooking people on the environment, on the outdoors, and they don’t have to buy a bunch of equipment to do that. And if we get a few of them hooked, they may come back to ski, come back in the summer. We think it’s a win-win-win. It’s a way to enlist the next generation of people who love the environment. You’re providing an economic benefit to the community, so you’re flattening out the peaks and valleys of the tourist season.  

The other thing it does for the environment is that you can concentrate the recreation activities where the infrastructure exists. It keeps that more dispersed remote area beyond the ski mountain less impacted.

TNEP: That’s a very good point. This has been part of urban areas for years, to build up not out. Now you’re putting that same thought into the ski resort.

Rick: The second one was I got to participate in Vail’s Leadership Summit. I’ve been fortunate enough to go to lots of leadership training. The Forest Service sent me to the US Army War College as a civilian for a year and I got to study with these brilliant Colonels and folks who would be Generals. So I’ve had some incredible leadership training.

Vail brought people like Nick Woodman, who’s the Chairman, CEO, and founder of GoPro and had our CEO interview Nick on stage. Listening to a young man describe his idea and how he made it successful and the twists and turns of becoming successful. That’s one small vignette of this leadership summit. It was just so impressive to me to go to that and see the investment that Vail had in leadership development.

TNEP: Regarding your title, “VP of Natural Resource and Conservation for Vail Resorts”, I imagine that when a non-environmental person first hears that, they think, “Oh, Vail Resorts!” But do you think people understand the “Natural Resources and Conservation” part of it?

Rick: I would say, not yet. I’ve been in this job 3 months. I think people understand our sustainability efforts, our recycling. I think they understand some of the compliance work. I think they understand some of the grants we provide communities and NGO’s associated with communities, but I don’t think they yet understand, nor have we designed how to integrate it all into an integrated whole.

When people talk about environmental sustainability, sustainability means the environment only. But when you read the myriad of international definitions, its economic sustainability, social and cultural sustainability, and environmental sustainability all integrated. When you think about sustainability that way, you can truly have sustainability. If you’re doing a really great job with the environment, but the economy is in the tank, at some point the economic pressures are going to bring pressure on the environment. How do we articulate sustainability that way and simple enough so it resonates? And also where someone in sales, how do they play in the environment.

TNEP: It’s interesting to hear you say that. A friend of mine is the Executive Director for the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado and she told me the same thing. That it’s not just the environment and once you realize that, you can make progress.

Rick: If I could go back the summer opportunities. If you get folks to the top of lift you’ve got them in a captive audience, they’re there in a few acres engaging in different activates. We want them to have opportunities for mountain bikes, for nature hikes, and we foresee maybe having a uniform ranger or wildlife officer to actually be there and do some interpretation.

I think we just scratched the surface of the potential. Many of our guests are very interested in the environment. They want to feel like even participating in the recreation activities on our mountains that they’re doing something for the environment.

We’d like our guests to believe, and it’s true, that Vail Resorts is an environmentally conscientious company that is doing things for the environment. If you look at the size of some of the things we’re doing from a sustainability standpoint, myself coming from the outside, I’m really impressed with what Vail is doing.

TNEP: It’s a big project, the environment of a ski area. Not just a ski area, but everything you guys own.

Rick: I’ve found it to be very fascinating. I talked about the big sectors. You’ve got the private sector, the government sector, the nonprofit sector, and the more you understand how those things interplay, I think the more you can understand systemically how you can drive change.

TNEP: This is great. With this site, I’m trying to tell the stories of environmental professionals and this is a good one.

Rick: Well, I’m glad you’re doing it, Rick. I think there’s a lot of power in storytelling. That’s how culture gets created.

Vail Ski Resorts

The Vail valley from the ski slopes.

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