Aspen Ski Co’s Employee-Run Foundation Takes a Side in Fracking Fight

The debate over natural gas fracking is a divisive one in many states right now, and Colorado—where 51 percent of residents said they were in favor in one recent poll—is no exception. In the wealthy town of Aspen, one foundation that is run by employees of a major ski resort company has joined the fray in some high-profile battles.

In the past year, the Aspen Skiing Company’s Environment Foundation made grants to groups attempting to rein in natural gas extraction in the state, on two separate, hotly contested fronts. The foundation’s fall grants awarded a combined $50,000 to two environmental groups to protect proposed air quality rules that oil and gas companies are trying to weaken. Earlier in 2013, they awarded $50,000 to prevent oil and gas drilling in the state’s Thompson Divide, an ongoing fight that has also drawn in Patagonia CEO Casey Sheahan. These amounts are each on the high end of the foundation’s typically modest grants.

Even though the Environment Foundation has a green mission, for what is essentially a hybrid of a community foundation and a corporate foundation, getting involved in a fracking fight is pretty bold. 

Then again, Colorado is an odd state politically, right in the heart of the country, sharply divided along urban and rural lines. The state has a history of both outdoor tourism and energy extraction commerce, creating unlikely opponents and strange bedfellows. Just one example: The Aspen Skiing Company has made a $5.4 million investment in a clean energy project housed at a coal mine owned by climate denier Bill Koch. Huh, you say? Long story.

The company (known locally as Skico) has been vocal on the climate change issue, as have a number of companies that rely on snow for business. And the Environment Foundation has a history of making grants to fight climate change. According to the Aspen Times, it's given nearly $500,000 toward limiting gas drilling and other climate change issues. The foundation has given a total of almost $2.5 million since it started in 1997. 

One likely reason for the foundation's transparency on an issue like gas drilling is its unique structure. While it lives under the Aspen Skiing Company brand, it has an unusual funding mechanism. The Environment Foundation starts with a voluntary payroll deduction plan with about 1,800 contributors, which is matched by the Aspen Community Foundation, the Aspen Skiing Company’s Family Fund, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and a regional Coca-Cola distributor. In addition, the foundation is run by a board of 15 Aspen Skiing Company employees. Similar to lefty corporate foundations at Newman’s Own and Ben & Jerry’s, the employees call the shots. 

All of which means that hundreds of individual donations from ski resort workers in a super-wealthy mountain town that used to be a mining town, mixed with a bunch of corporate dollars, are going up against the state’s oil and gas industry. Which is weird. And pretty cool. 

Learn more about the Aspen Skiing Company and its scrappy Environment Foundation here, and how to apply for support here.