Celebrating 25 Years of the Environment Foundation
A brief history of how everyday resort employees became multimillion-dollar philanthropists.
By Jessi Hackett
When Chris Lane helped start the Aspen Skiing Company’s Environment Foundation (EF) in 1997, he knew the organization would be the first of its kind in the ski industry. In fact, at the time, when rockered skis were a thing of the future and snowboards were still not (officially) allowed on Aspen Mountain, a lot of what Lane was up to was “the first of its kind” in the world of ski resorts, including his title as the industry’s first-ever director of environmental affairs.
Lane, who is now the CEO of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), says he can’t take full credit for the EF’s origin story. “When Pat O’Donnell started as COO and then CEO at Aspen Skiing Company in the late 1990s and hired me, he made it clear that part of my job was to create a kind of foundation where employees donated money to the environment.”
And so, the Environment Foundation was born. The idea was simple: employees would donate a buck or two from every paycheck. The Aspen Skiing Company Family Fund and Aspen Community Foundation would match each buck dollar-for-dollar, and a board of directors, comprised of Aspen Skiing Company employees from across the business, would govern the foundation and decide which projects to fund. The most novel part? Upper management would be entirely hands off. The vision was to create a culture deep within the company where employees cared about the environment and were empowered to do something about it.
Prior to his time at Aspen Skiing Company, Pat O’Donnell was president at Whistler Blackcomb, and before that, President and CEO at Patagonia. “I spent 20 minutes with Lester Crown and I was smitten, I knew this was a company that had good values,” recalls O’Donnell, who is now retired and living on Colorado’s western slope. “The idea of the Foundation had been in the back of my mind after working at Patagonia. I figured with a couple thousand employees, and if everyone gave a dollar every two weeks, employees could become philanthropists, funding projects of their choosing.”
The Environment Foundation has grown over the past 25 years, with about 1,200 employees contributing annually. But, according to Lane, it didn’t necessarily start that way. “It took time for employees to buy into it,” he says. Lifties, patrollers, operations folks—hard-working employees were skeptical to trust where their money was really going, and some even joined the board simply to see what it was all about. “They could give $1 a week, which seemed digestible. And because of the match, it could equate to $156 a year,” says Lane. “And that made everyday employees want to contribute, because that match represented taking money from the big corporate guy and doing something good with it.”
"I figured with a couple thousand employees, and if everyone gave a dollar every two weeks, employees could become philanthropists, funding projects of their choosing."
“The Environment Foundation represents a lot of Aspen Skiing Company values. ”says Aspen Skiing Company CEO Geoff Buchheister. “It's inspiring and speaks to why this company’s culture is unique.”
In the spring 2023 grant cycle, the employee board awarded $153,296 to 19 organizations. Recipients included EcoFlight, funding small aircraft overflights to aid in the education and research surrounding the construction of wildlife passages across the highways in the Roaring Fork Valley (led by a group known as Roaring Fork Safe Passages); The Arts Campus at Willits, funding their original play called Captain POW! to teach local kids about meaningful climate action; and Protégete, an initiative of Conservation Colorado that elevates Latin-driven environmental priorities through leadership development.
“The programs that stand out are sometimes smaller, but have big impacts like trail work, helping local schools start to compost, or aiding the legal organizations trying to protect our groundwater or local rivers,” says Jonathan Greenspan of Aspen Snowmass’ Ski & Snowboard School. Greenspan has worked in the ski industry for nearly 40 years and decided to join the board of the Environment Foundation late in his career.
“It gives me faith that folks know the worth of their paycheck and trust that they can make a difference.”
For Peter Feinzig, sales manager for Stay Aspen Snowmass, working with the Basalt School District to fund a brand-new, part-time Outdoor Education Coordinator position hit closest to home this spring. “Education is an easy cause to get behind,” says Feinzig, who joined the board in spring of 2023, making him one of the newest members to commit to a three-year service term. The new role will take the burden of planning outdoor education off the plates of current teachers, allowing one dedicated person to focus on lessons and outings that foster a love for the outdoors and environmental stewardship.
“Promoting programs that develop and inspire new generations of leaders was something that I was both proud and excited to support,” says Feinzig.
The list of projects that have benefitted from the Environment Foundation’s grants over the last quarter century is vast. On-the-ground organizations like the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative have been longtime recipients of funds; the Initiative receives anywhere from $4,000 to $8,000 every spring grant cycle since 2013 to help fund trail monitoring and maintenance for Colorado’s busy fourteeners. Policy-focused organizations like Protect Our Winters, Conservation Colorado, and the Wilderness Workshop have received funds for their efforts in curbing oil and gas development, influencing climate-centered policy, and conducting bi-partisan research. WE-cycle, the Roaring Fork Valley’s bikeshare program, utilized EF funds when it first launched. Basalt Library received funds to install electric car charging stations. And that’s just scratching the surface.
“I remember hearing about the Environment Foundation for the first time around 20 years ago,” says Darien Vickery, who works as the general manager at the Sundeck and Aspen Mountain Club, and has been with Aspen Skiing Company for more than two decades. “I thought it was incredible that a company cared about ‘these kinds of things’.” Vickery’s tenure on the board of the EF wraps up soon, and she says one of the best parts of being on the board has been the volunteer days, when board members get outside and do trail work. “Those days just show how a group of people can each do a little work and collectively have a big and lasting impact.”
“It’s an amazing program because of its durability, scale—over $4 million in donations—and most importantly because it intentionally empowers people as philanthropists,” says Auden Schendler, who joined the Environmental Affairs in its infancy and helped Chris Lane get the foundation off the ground. Today, he’s the SVP of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. A self-described “ski bum who might never have had the power and access to give away big chunks of money is now part of that world.” And that’s a big deal.
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