April 16, 2010


A Village's Challenge -- Hakuba as a Sustainable Ski Resort

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.91 (March 2010)

Many people in the world were inspired and impressed by the 2010 Olympic Winter Games recently held in Vancouver, Canada. The games are a wonderful event that provides a great opportunity for people around the world to unite despite differences in race and nationality. At the same time, we have to remember that we can enjoy winter sports thanks to the invaluable benefits provided by the Earth.

Without snow or ice, it would be impossible to hold the Olympic Winter Games. Climate change is becoming a serious problem for winter sports athletes, and ski resorts in various parts of the world already suffer from lack of snow. In some years past, a series of winter games, such as ski competitions, were cancelled because of snow shortages. The amount of snowfall in Japan has also been in decline in recent years, and some ski resorts have been forced to close because of it.

Ski Resorts Aiming to Be More Eco-Friendly

Under these circumstances, ski resorts around the village of Hakuba, in Nagano Prefecture, launched their own initiatives to combat climate change, under the belief that winter sports sites themselves should take action. In October 2008, seven ski resorts in the village -- Hakuba Sanosaka, Hakuba Goryu, Hakuba47 Winter Sports Park, Hakuba Happoone, Hakuba Iwatake, Hakuba Minekata, and Hakuba Highland Snow Park (now closed) -- made a commitment to become more eco-friendly by signing the Hakuba Eco-Ski Resorts Declaration.

The ski resorts around Hakuba, located in the foothills of Japan's Northern Alps, are among the best in the nation. With excellent snow quality and dynamic terrain, they attract many skiers and snowboarders from both home and abroad. At the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, the Hakuba area was the main venue for ski competitions such as alpine skiing, ski jumping, and cross-country skiing. It was six years ago when volunteers in Hakuba, a mecca for lovers of winter sports, launched its first environmental initiatives.

The village has a population of about 9,200, and 90 percent of them are employed in the ski-lift business or tourism; in other words, tourism related to the ski resorts is the village's key industry. In recent years, however, the number of skiers has been shrinking due to a general diversification of public leisure activities and a declining birthrate. Furthermore, a lack of snow caused by abnormally warm winters has been a serious blow to the village's economy.

With the hope of boosting the struggling ski industry from the viewpoint of ecology, some volunteers in the village established in June 2004 the Hakuba Environmental Education Promotion Council (also called Hakuba Econet), and started holding study group meetings on environmental issues and conducting research. This grassroots organization has gradually raised people's awareness and expanded the network of cooperation in the community, all with the aim of creating more eco-friendly ski resorts.

In September 2008, the Hakuba Econet project won the grand prize at the "Sawayaka Shinshu Eco-Grand Prix," held by the Nagano Center for Climate Change Action. The project, selected at the prefectural level, then proceeded to the "2009 Stop Climate Change -- One Village, One Action at a Time" convention, organized by the Ministry of the Environment in order to promote innovative local projects dealing with global warming prevention. At the national convention, Hakuba Econet won the Review Board Special Award (Ecotourism Award).

Below are some of the approaches Hakuba's eco-friendly ski resorts are engaged in.

1. Collection of Used Cooking Oil for Biodiesel Fuel

All the ski resorts that signed onto being eco-friendly save their used cooking oil. Hakuba Econet collects it from the restaurants in the ski resorts and other adjacent facilities, and then the nonprofit organization (NPO) Chiiki Zukuri Kobo (Community Improvement Studio), in the neighboring city of Omachi, recycles the oil into refined biodiesel fuel (BDF). In three ski seasons, from December 2005 to May 2008, 4,400 liters of used oil was collected and converted into 3,552 liters of BDF. Refined BDF is sold to the NPO's members, and it is now being considered for use as fuel for the shuttle buses the ski resorts operate.

2. Organic Waste Composting

The Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort (Iimori Slope) uses wooden boxes on the back of an unused trailer to compost organic waste collected from rest houses around the resort. The organic waste, which includes rice husks and buckwheat husks, is placed in layers to then be decomposed by microorganisms, and it turns into compost after three to six months. About 7,000 liters of organic waste used to be disposed of each ski season previously, but thanks to the composting operation, the amount of combustible waste has been reduced, and the cost of fuel for incineration has also been significantly reduced.

The compost is offered free of charge to farmers and others who grow vegetables, when it comes available after the thaw period between April and May. It is well received by farmers because it prevents soil from becoming hard-packed. Ski resort employees also use it to grow vegetables like corn, potatoes, green soybeans, and grape tomatoes in summer, which are then offered to athletes and students who come to training camps in the area.

3. More Efficient Use of Energy

The Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort (Toomi and Alps Daira Slopes) privately generates 50 percent (80 percent during summer) of the electricity used in all its facilities, and at one point introduced a cogeneration system, which uses residual heat generated during the process. Surrounded by concrete, in-house electricity is produced by a heavy oil engine using diesel oil. It is used in the resort's ski center and to operate the 2,013-meter gondola lifts connecting the base to the top of the mountain. Residual heat generated during the process is used for hot-water supply, room heating, and melting snow where needed. The in-house power generation system eliminates the need to install heating and hot-water boilers, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions to a large degree.

4. Utilization of Wood Refuse and Wood from Forest Maintenance

The Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort (Iimori Slope) utilizes waste wood by processing it into unique wood products. In summer, larch and cedar trees are cleared from around the slopes, which are usually disposed as waste because their trunks are too slim to have any value as a building material. In order to make use of these trees, people at Iimori Slopes started to build a small house near the ski lift, as well as ski stands, tables, and benches. In spring, colorful flowers are planted in the planters made of this wood for decorative use around the resort's rest houses.

5. Forest Conservation

At the Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort (Toomi and Alps Daira Slopes) there is a branch office of the Donguri Bank, an organization that accepts acorns (donguri, in Japanese) collected in the mountains, much like a banking service. When people bring the acorns they've gathered into the bank, they are listed in their bankbooks as "D" units (for donguri). A small acorn from Konara oak trees (Quercus serrata Thunb), for example, accounts for 1 D (1 donguri), and a big acorn from a Sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima) accounts for 10 D.

The acorns brought to the office are then sent to the headquarters of the Donguri Bank in the village of Okawa, in Kochi Prefecture, where they are grown into seedlings. When acorn depositors want to make a "withdrawal," they can exchange 100 D for a Konara oak seedling to plant in their garden, local school or park, or at the tree-planting ceremony held in Okawa. At the bank's branch office at the Hakuba Goryu Resort, already about 360 people have opened bank accounts to deposit the acorns they collected.

Forest conservation is also an important issue for people that visit ski resorts to proactively support. As the surrounding forests play various key roles as places for leisure, habitat for precious animals and plants, recharge of water resources, disaster prevention, and carbon dioxide absorption, it is hoped that the number of skiers and snowboarders that pay attention to the precious forests surrounding them will increase, and that they will then join in forest conservation initiatives to build a more sustainable society.

On the Road to Being a True Eco-Village

The initiative to make Hakuba the center of eco-friendly ski resorts provides various clues for all of society to be more sustainable. Mr. Ko Ogawa, executive officer of Hakuba Econet, says, "Our approach to being an eco-friendly ski resort is only a milestone on the road to being truly sustainable. Changing all of Hakuba into a place that operates as an eco-friendly village is our real long-term goal." Hakuba, as a sacred place for winter sports, even after 50 years and 100 years...this is not such a long time before the dream comes true, if all of those who live there share the same hope.

Written by Ichie Tsunoda