For more than 50 years, helicopter skiing has been the ultimate aspiration of skiers and snowboarders around the world. And for that same amount of time, Canada has been at the forefront of the industry – which thrives in our westernmost province.
British Columbia has the highest concentration of heli-skiing operations in the world, dotted across a virtually unrivalled wealth of peaks and powder snow. To the naked eye, heli-skiing leaves only ski tracks in the mountains. But an increasingly loud chorus of voices is pointing out that the industry also leaves something else behind: carbon emissions, which threaten the very winter wildernesses skiers love.
As a result, many in the snow-sports community are beginning to ask whether heli-skiing is something we should still be doing.
Several countries, including France, Norway and Japan, have banned heli-skiing, largely for environmental reasons. Although the industry’s overall emissions are small in the grand scheme of things, its operations produce a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases (GHG), compared to other mountain sports.
Terrace, B.C.-based Northern Escape Heli Skiing (NEHS) recently published an estimate of its carbon footprint after doing a self-audit. The company found that it expels 0.62 tonnes of GHG for each of its skiers, each day.
To stay on track to meet the global-warming targets in the Paris Agreement, the footprints for G20 countries have to come down to an average of 4.5 tonnes of GHG a person, each year, by the end of this decade, according to the U.N. A single NEHS heli-skier will emit almost that amount in seven days.
Cast in that light, heli-skiing might seem wholly unjustifiable. But some operators are exploring whether the industry can go green.
In NEHS’s view, it can. In fall 2021, the company proclaimed itself carbon-neutral. Its tactic is to purchase carbon offsets – meaning it makes financial contributions intended to reduce carbon emissions somewhere else in the world. (Its particular program works to preserve the Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.’s northwest coast.)
John Forrest, NEHS’s founder and president, said he hopes the move nudges the industry toward an environmentally ethical future.
“Climate change is real. We can see it,” he said. “We spend our time in the mountains, we show our guests beautiful vistas and take them to places that people can’t generally get to, and they’re beautiful because of the wilderness and the wild state they’re in. We want to keep that. We want to manage that as best we can, and we don’t want to impact it in a negative way.”
But experts have criticized carbon offsets for providing ways for carbon-emitting companies to avoid reducing the direct environmental impacts of their operations. A 2016 study published by the European Commission found that 85 per cent of the offsets it analyzed had a low likelihood of netting good results because the benefits were either overestimated or weren’t “additional.” That means the offsets were attached to carbon-reducing projects that would have happened even if the credits had never been sold, and they weren’t absorbing extra emissions. European Union member states have since voted to disallow the use of offsets to meet climate goals.
As to whether or not voluntary offsets actually work to mitigate heli-skiing emissions, or whether they could realistically scale to the point where they would be a viable solution for the whole industry, Forrest argues that’s not the point. Attaching a cost to emissions incentivizes efficiency, he said, and that’s the more important thing.
“I think the bigger or more pertinent question really is, is it expensive enough that it makes you want to go into a reduction plan? And the answer to that is yes, carbon offsets are expensive. … You get way better bang for your buck by making reductions,” he said.
In keeping with this, NEHS has put an emissions-reduction plan in place that includes initiatives like installing solar panels on one of its lodges. In doing so, the company is applying prescriptions that HeliCat Canada, the industry’s trade association, made in a 2018 white paper prepared in partnership with Colorado-based sustainability consultancy firm Natural Capitalism Solutions. The document lists several areas in which heli-skiing operators can lower emissions, such as by using more fuel-efficient ground vehicles and by making improvements to buildings.
Forrest said he was surprised to learn, during NEHS’s carbon audit, that jet fuel made up only 28 per cent of the company’s total emissions in 2021. Diesel, propane and gasoline represented the bulk of its footprint (heli-skiing uses off-grid luxury lodges powered by diesel generators).
That, he said, is good news, because it gives the company room to make tangible improvements without purchasing offsets. But Forrest acknowledges those improvements have a ceiling, because jet fuel is impossible to get away from.
“The helicopters, in my lifetime, will not likely be electric powered,” he said.
Because of that, larger companies that can streamline their operations are in a better position to shrink their footprints. According to a 2010 sustainability report published by CMH Heli-Skiing – which is the largest heli-skiing company in the world, with 12 locations across B.C. – its support operations put out three times less carbon than the helicopter fuel it used that year. This was for things like lodges, snowmobiles and staff transportation.
Still, according to what CMH filed with the province for “skier-days” in 2008, the math worked out to an average footprint of 0.39 tonnes of GHG a skier each day that year (the last for which it published emissions data). While that is about 35 per cent better than NEHS’s figure, it would only take 11 days for one skier to put out a year’s worth of emissions at that rate, based on the Paris targets.
Knowing this, CMH has long offered to measure GHG emissions for guests who wish to offset them, but it ultimately leaves it up to individual skiers to buy carbon credits.
Dave Butler, CMH’s director of sustainability, said the company is “currently doing some very robust research on carbon-offset projects.”
He acknowledged that climate change is real and that CMH is part of the problem, and he said the company is studying sustainable aviation fuels, among other carbon-reduction measures. But he also made the case that the company gives more than it takes, even with its current carbon footprint.
“I believe there are extensive benefits that flow from our operations. These range from purely economic – tax revenues, family-supporting careers in rural communities, long-term partnerships with suppliers – to filling needs in communities that aren’t filled by others,” he said. The company, he noted, supports food banks and local shelters, partners with Outward Bound to provide special trips for domestic abuse survivors, and holds leadership camps for Indigenous youth.
“I am also convinced that the value of introducing people to wild places and inspiring them to behave differently and make a difference back at home is incalculable,” Butler added.
While it’s also true the heli-skiing industry provides a modest boost to rural economies, it’s a relatively small business. HeliCat says the sector, which comprises both heli- and snowcat-skiing, employed 2,846 people in 2019, with 1,797 of those jobs being full-time. That’s less than many single, big companies in Canada. A 2019 study by HeliCat placed heli-skiing’s contribution to B.C.’s economy at $326-million that year, a number that likewise dissolved into the province’s GDP, which was $252-billion.
Heli-skiing’s other problem of scale is its dependence on commercial flights and cars to get people in place – because it is concentrated in remote locations. This tethers it to the transportation industry, which is the single biggest emitter of GHG in the U.S., and is tied with oil and gas development in Canada. (One return cross-country flight in North America equals about half a year’s worth of emissions in itself.)
This is tricky for heli-skiing because it caters almost entirely to the foreign market. The pandemic made this problem particularly apparent in 2020, when Canada’s border shut down and most operators decided to do the same. In an October, 2020 letter to CMH’s clientele explaining the company’s reasons for suspending trips through 2021, then-company president Jeremy Levitt wrote that the border closures “prohibit most of you from coming.” Those few heli-skiing companies that did operate in 2021 did so at extremely reduced capacity, in service of a tiny domestic market.
The resort-based skiing market, in comparison, is about 85 per cent domestic, according to the Canadian Ski Council.
Heli-skiing, at the end of the day, is also an exclusive pursuit. In 2019, HeliCat reported that its member operators’ average revenue per guest was $2,087 a day. That’s about 10 times the cost of a day ticket at Whistler Blackcomb, Canada’s most expensive ski resort, during peak season. Using a helicopter as a personal chairlift to untracked snow is, statistically, an extravagance very few of Canada’s estimated 2.5 million skiers will ever get to partake in.
While it may be the ultimate actualization of a skiing life, it’s worth asking exactly who heli-skiing benefits, and what it costs the rest of us.
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