America's 10 Most-Polluting Mountain Towns

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Guess who made the top of the list? Park City Mountain Resort photo.

When we set out on our quest to find the mountain towns with the largest carbon footprint, it was not an easy task. The hardest factor was to find a common denominator for all of these different areas. That's when we discovered an interactive map of the United States created by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, who weighed over 37 variables, including household energy use, consumer expenditures, and transportation to provide the average metric tons of carbon pollution produced by each household in every county in the United States. We used this data to rank over 30 mountain towns and, as a jumping-off point, to discover what is going on in these mountain communities.

What we discovered is that the two factors that lead to pollution in most mountain towns are housing and transportation. This usually stems from an inadequate public transit system or large vacation homes that are not occupied for the entire year.

#10: Jackson, WY

The iconic Jackson Hole landscape. Wikimedia Commons Photo

When I first moved to Jackson, I was told about the “Wyoming Carpool,” a local habit turned inside joke, where everyone unintentionally takes their individual cars to the same place, at the same time. So it may not come as a big surprise that number 10 on this list, with 45 metric tons of CO2 pollution per household, is Jackson Hole. Considering that Jackson Hole’s population is spread out between the town of Jackson, Wilson, and Teton Village, it is understandable why the carbon pollution from transportation is nearly double that of any other category.

However, unlike Bend, Stowe, and Truckee, nearly a fifth of Jackson’s population utilizes the valley's public transportation system, the START Bus, which provides frequent shuttles between residential areas and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. However, the Jackson Hole Conversation Alliance recognizes that if you aren’t a full-time ski bum, “neighborhoods lack sidewalks…streets aren’t safe for our kids to ride bikes to school. Unless you’re going to and from Teton Village during the winter, the START bus just doesn’t work for most of us”.

Thankfully, rather than contributing to this carbon pollution, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort offsets 100% of its annual electricity consumption–equivalent to roughly 2,000 metric tons of CO2 pollution each year–by purchasing renewable energy credits, utilizes biodiesel in its equipment, negating over 4.3 million pounds of CO2 pollution each year. So unless your idea of a good time is grass laps in early March, it might be time to look into what organizations in Jackson are doing to reduce our impact.

#9: Truckee, California

Downtown Truckee. Truckee Tourism photo.

If there was ever a place that’s been the picture of climate change in the West, it’s Truckee, California, where a third year of warm temps and drought have dropped the Lake Tahoe Basin snowpack to 3% of normal and provided area skiers and snowboarders with a stark picture of what the future holds if carbon pollution continues unabated in the decades to come.

Truckee drops in at number 9 with 45.6 metric tons of CO2 pollution per household, partly because of their rarely used and inconvenient transportation service.Truckee’s bus system offers fixed routes for most of the winter, but neglects to provide an expansive or frequent service from mid-March through mid-December, pushing people back into their cars and out of sustainable options during the summer. Truckee is currently challenging its residents to get back on those wheels and use bike friendly trails for the off season and summer months.

However, Truckee’s seasonal population only adds to the issue, with nearly half of homes remaining vacant for most of the year but still requiring energy throughout the entire year. In order to mitigate this outsize energy consumption, Truckee’s local environmental organizations, like Truckee Green Network and Keep Truckee Green, have made sustainable programs more visible, like the recent ban on plastic bags, and comprehensive recycling programs with easy to navigate facilities.

This is only a start, so if you want to keep the spirit of Squallywood alive and see future generations hucking themselves off the Palisades, some serious action has to be taken today. In reality, change needed to happen yesterday, so if this year’s third of year of low tide conditions wasn’t enough to force Truckee locals into public transportation and weekend warriors out of non-renewable energy sources, you might need to accept the fact that the Fingers may never fill in again…

#8: Aspen, Colorado

A double at Aspen Snowmass. Wikimedia Commons Photo

Although Aspen has made some very vocal claims about their efforts to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions, and we do recognize that, they still take the 8th spot on this list due to their average of 45.7 metric tons of carbon pollution per household– an average that we think is pulled so high due to the prevalence of gargantuan mansions in the valley. A full fifth of houses in Aspen have four or more bedrooms–about twice the frequency of most other mountain towns we surveyed. In order to offset this number, Aspen and Aspen/Snowmass have chosen to make even greater strides to go green. The town and resort have built a 115 KW micro-hydro plant, a 147 kW solar array, and host one of the best public transportation networks you’re going to find anywhere in the mountains outside of the Alps.

To the town’s credit, barely a third of residents commute alone in a car to work–whereas in places like Stowe, less than 1% do. Still, more of Aspen’s residents–be they full-time locals or McMansion owners in town for a few weeks a year–need to take advantage of the town’s incredible public transportation system, which includes free shuttles and carpool incentives, which, unfortunately, cannot offset enough resources to accommodate for the single drivers or multiple car owners.

Perhaps we can blame it on the Wall Street wolves or the Paris Hiltons of the world, but Aspen will cease to be a place where the beer flows like wine and the women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano, if we don’t follow the town’s lead to enact more environmentally friendly practices. Aspen/Snowmass itself is one of the few resorts going beyond small environmental measures on the ground and is actually pressuring the government itself to do something about climate change, lest skiing be relegated to only the upper ¼ of Aspen Mountain in just a few decades due to warming temperatures.

#7: Bend, Oregon

Bend, Oregon on a sunny day. Wikimedia Commons Photo

Now, my first impression of Bend isn’t necessarily that of an environmentally neglectful ski town, and I’m not going to say that it is, but here’s a little explanation of why they made our 7th spot with 46.2 metric tons of CO2 pollution per household. Considering that Bend is one of the fastest growing communities in Oregon, with over half of its residents having moved in in the last 15 years, it's no surprise that they have struggled to accommodate their rapidly growing population. Their goal of providing “more livable, economically vital, transportation-efficient, sustainable, pedestrian-friendly community” (Bend Transit Plan) has been stressed by the huge influx of new residents. Here, both housing and transportation are matched as the biggest polluters.

Perhaps Bend has suffered from Portland’s overflow of flannel-wearing, beard-bearing hippies, but whatever the cause, the Bend Energy Challenge has rallied the community to minimize their total carbon pollution by competing to reduce their energy use at home, with the goal of winning a $5 million cash prize for the city that reduces the most (other mountain towns like Aspen, Jackson, and Park City are competing as well).

And although they may not have a designated purse for commuters who opt for more sustainable transportation methods, Bend2030 recently hosted a forum to create concrete transportation plans for the 30,000 more people that are expected to move to Bend by 2030, and the increased congestion that commuters will inevitably feel. Better take to those bike paths now, it's about to get crowded out there!

Check out our Local’s Guide to Bend.

#6: Park City, Utah

Downtown Park City. Park City Mountain Resort Photo

Coming in at 6th place on our list with 46.3 metric tons of carbon pollution per household is the quaint, picturesque mountain haven of Park City. The land of Sundance is guilty of overconsumption, but why is this significant? Simply put, for a place like Park City to continue to exist, they need to be a part of the solution. In 2007 a carbon audit was performed that outlined how Park City could change if temperatures increased over the next 100 years. In some outcomes, Park City would cease to have snow, essentially destroying life in this mountain town.

A whooping 32.2% of Park City's population lives in a house with four or more bedrooms, and with most of Utah’s electricity sourced from coal, this makes these houses’ carbon footprint extremely large.

It is easy for us to critique and point fingers, so to their credit, Park City is trying to do more to conserve. It signed the U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, implemented efficiency projects in municipal works, increased the amount of speeding on green building, and Park City Mountain Resort has worked hard to decrease consumption. It is not enough, however, for a city to take action–individual households need to work to conserve this place. In a less than a hundred years it would be a shame to see stickers that say “I Used to Ride Park City.”

#5: Stowe, Vermont

The gondola at Stowe Mountain Resort. Wikimedia Commons Photo

Coming in “hot” at number 5 is Stowe, Vermont–apparently the Green Mountain state seems a little less green after all. Despite Vermont’s reputation for being obsessively green and clean, they have fallen by the wayside due to carbon pollution from both public and private transportation. With the average Stowe resident driving alone, and the majority of commuters ignoring the town’s public transportation, Stowe’s carbon footprint comes in at 48.3 metric tons per household, with the town’s energy-hogging housing and transportation habits putting Stowe in 6th place on our list.

Despite the Green Mountain Transit Authority’s fleet of 44 clean diesel busses, less than 1% takes advantage of this option. Perhaps this is due to inconvenient routes and times, spread out neighborhoods, and more remote homes, but nevertheless, these services need to be utilized on a more regular basis to reduce the town's pollution footprint.

Recognizing this, Governor Peter Shumlin has lobbied and gained funding for a Transportation Alternatives Program which will revamp these services to include pedestrian and bicycle facilities and improved non-driver access to daily needs. In addition, wind energy presents huge potential for the state of Vermont, but the persistence of NIMBYism may be the death of such possibilities. It might be time to take advantage of the natural beauty of the Green Mountains, why not fat bike or ride to a bus stop and commute from there? Change needed to happen yesterday.

Bill McKibben, the Founder of 350.org and a Vermont resident, understands that sustainable practices need to be adopted on a more day-to-day level. In front of the Vermont General Assembly in 2013 he stated that “[Climate change] is an emergency. The world today is not as sweet as the world we were born into. Our iconic Vermont of long winters and glorious falls will be badly, badly stressed.”

#4: Mount Hood, Oregon

Mount Hood's snowpack in the summer. Wikimedia Commons Photo

What would you do in a world without Windells? Where would tall-tee wearing groms congregate? How would Newschoolers stay operational during the summer months? Mount Hood has the potential to feel the effects of global warming before most places on this list. Its close proximity to the warm water of the Pacific Ocean means a couple degree temperature shift could wreak havoc on this mountain community, just as it did this winter, when warm temps caused most precipitation to fall as rain.

The loss of winter recreation and tourism dollars will be only one of the casualties of a warming planet. “Snowpacks act as giant reservoirs for water and lakes," Angus Duncan of the Oregon Warming Commission Duncan says, "Reduced mountain snowpacks would make rivers less hospitable for salmon, reduce hydroelectric power production, crimp farmers’ access to irrigation, and bring more wildfires.”

The average Mount Hood household contributes 49.8 metric tons of CO2 pollution to the air per year. About 40% of that number comes from transportation. 39.1% of Mount Hood residents own 3 or more cars. So unless you want to see unruly steezed out groms with nowhere to go during the summer months, something better change in Mount Hood.

#3: Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Steamboat Springs during a winter day. Flickr Photo

Rural towns and counties can be a difficult place to implement energy-saving public transportation and municipal systems. Communities are spread out on dirt roads and deep into the woods, where a bus system is pointless. This partially explains why a large portion of Steamboat Springs' 50.4 metric tons of CO2 pollution per household is a derivative largely of the impact of transportation.

Larger cities and towns have a more set path to combat climate change, whereas rural communities need to be more creative. According to census data, in Routt County, there are over 22,000 cattle and almost 9,000 sheep. The livestock community faces a problem in reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during farming and ranching. When cows burp and fart they release methane, one of the most potent forms of greenhouse gases. If farmers used new special engineered grasses (not what you find in a dispensary) it might greatly cut down the amount of methane released when raising cattle.

#2: Missoula, Montana

Missoula, Montana on a stunning night. Wikimedia Commons Photo

What roles do small towns and cities have in the fight against climate change? It's easy to write these problems off as something only more populated parts of the country can tackle, or hand the responsibility over to the federal and state governments, but this attitude will only further exacerbate the issue. A large burden will fall on the Leslie Knopes of local government to make an impact.

Missoula, Montana is one of these small cities. They make a surprise spot at number three on this list with 50.5 metric tons of CO2 pollution per household. When Missoula realized their carbon output growth was increasing faster than all other Montana cities, they sprung into action. Missoula conducted a carbon audit and started to plan next steps.

The town acknowledges that it has a ways to go to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it has taken that crucial first step. In the carbon audit they outlined a plan, which included setting reduction goals and monitoring systems.

Currently only 1.7% of Missoula’s residents use public transportation to commute to work. Their public transit is currently facing pressure from the public to boost services. So to keep snow on Lost Trail and the water flowing over Brennan’s Wave for years to come ,Missoula needs to continue down this path.

#1: Salt Lake City, Utah

Salt Lake City within sight of the Wasatch. Wikimedia Commons Photo

Where do you move when you still want to ski, but have that college degree you want to use? The answer for many folks is Salt Lake City. The Wasatch are in sight when smog doesn’t smother the view, and outdoor playgrounds of all kinds are not far from the inversion layer. For many it will come as no surprise that Salt Lake City has found its way to the top of this list. It infamous smog has garnered national attention, and the average household there produces 58 metric tons of carbon pollution per year.

In a 2013 New York Times article, Dr. Brian Moench, who heads the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, stated that “Our levels of air pollution are causing the exact same consequences as if all Salt Lake City’s pregnant women were smoking.” Yikes! According to the Utah Division of Air Quality, there were 22 days in 2013 where air pollution was above acceptable measures. On these days scientists have compared the air quality to Beijing… are you kidding me? Beijing-like air a short drive away from blower powder? That doesn’t sound right.

According to the Utah Transit Authority, the amount of public transportation–specifically bus routes–have actually decreased in Salt Lake City since 2006. Routes running at night and on the weekends have decreased as much as 50%! The UTA is trying to offer more options to riders in the form of its expanding light rail system, and in 2015 they plan to have $2.3 billion worth of new building for the trains.

*Demographic, housing, & commuting statistics provided by the U.S. Census Bureau

-Co-written by Jonathan Desabris & Hillary Saunders

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