Last Updated on December 23, 2023

Charming Breckenridge in the heart of the Colorado Rockies is more than a fabulous ski destination. This two-mile high mountain community stands as a captivating example of sustainability and conservation.

With its breathtaking natural landscapes and a commitment to preserving the beauty and vitality of the region, Breckenridge offers valuable lessons in both sustainable living and responsible tourism.

At first glance, Breckenridge appears to be an idyllic mountain resort town drawing visitors worldwide to experience its pristine slopes, vibrant downtown, and outdoor recreational opportunities. However, the town understands the delicate balance between catering to tourists and safeguarding its natural environment and is actively doing something about it.

Breckenridge did not come by these credentials easily. The town came into existence because gold was found in the Blue River, which traverses the city. If you know anything about gold mining, it is a dirty industry, putting noxious chemicals into the environment, consuming outrageous quantities of water, and often incorporating devastating strip mining techniques.

On a hike up Minnie Mountain trail, one can see the remnants – abandoned mine chutes, huge piles of boulders where the area was flooded, and massive barges, the size of hotels – all the leftover damage from harvesting the precious mineral. With diligence and resolve, Breckenridge has cleaned up the former mining wasteland into the alpine wonderland it is today.

Climate Change

Ski resorts across the globe have entered a negative feedback loop. Less natural snow is pushing resorts to create more artificial snow, a carbon-intensive activity contributing to warmer winters and, you guessed it, less snow. Snow-making machines rely on diesel fuel or electricity releasing carbon dioxide as a by-product.

Powering snow machines with electricity from renewable energy sources will bring down the climatic impact of these operations. Breckenridge has already committed to be carbon neutral by 2035 and given the severity of climate concerns, Breckenridge is now vowing to do this at least a decade sooner.

Breckenridge has also made a commitment to decrease the carbon footprint of skiers.

Resort shuttles are readily available, reducing the need for single passenger vehicles. In town, convenient free shuttles abound, further reducing the need for driving. These are currently being converted to electric vehicles.

Ubers can be hard to come by, but resort shuttles can be hailed via cell phone apps and the city’s free shuttles run a regular schedule all over the small town.

Breckenridge Sustainability

Breckenridge Early Mining Days.
Breckenridge Early Mining Days. Photo courtesy of Breckenridge Historical Society

The sustainability practices of ski resorts don’t stop at the slopes. Ski resorts house restaurants, hotels, bars, leisure facilities, and other means of entertainment. For this reason, resorts require an all-encompassing sustainability approach.

Consider the number of plastic straws, cups, bottles, ketchup sachets, and even ski passes that are discarded into landfills every year. Single-use plastic is a monumental environmental concern. Plastic takes between 20 to 1000 years to decompose while their toxic chemicals poison ecosystems, seeping into food chains and accumulating within organisms.

The production of plastic itself is a fossil-fuel-hungry process. It’s estimated that by 2050, worldwide plastic production and incineration will emit 2.5 gigatons of CO2 per year. In response to this threat, Breckenridge has banned single-use plastic as a key element of its overall sustainability program.

Managing waste efficiently in a sensitive alpine environment poses another unique challenge. Breckenridge tackles this by implementing rigorous recycling programs, composting initiatives, and encouraging businesses and residents to reduce single-use plastics.

Today, most institutions either do not use straws or offer paper ones, and are actively engaged supporting in these plastic waste reduction efforts.


Closeup tailings of old mining expedition from Minnie Mine trail.
Closeup tailings of old mining expedition from Minnie Mine trail. Photo by Dr. Allen Lycstra

Breckenridge is vigilant about preserving its natural habitats with stringent regulations in place to protect wildlife and their ecosystems. This includes efforts to minimize the impact of ski resorts and other recreational activities on the local plants and animals.

A primary goal of the Town’s Open Space Plan is preserving undeveloped land to provide a better balance between human habitation and wildlife habitat. Over the years, Breckenridge has purchased several thousand acres of backcountry land jointly with Summit County providing important habitat and critical connectivity to adjacent natural areas. 

Breckenridge is further dedicated to restoring and revitalizing the Blue River for improved fish and wildlife habitat. Future efforts are envisioned for areas that have seen previous environmental degradation from old mining dumps and river dredge piles.

Breckenridge also has an ongoing wetland initiative. Wetlands protect the public health and safety by performing a variety of functions including groundwater recharge, flood flow attenuation and water quality protection. Wetlands also provide unique habitat for wildlife species, many of which are either endangered or threatened.

Land use changes surrounding wetlands may increase the flow of water and pollutants to wetlands, overwhelming their ability to provide these functions and threatening their sustainability. Larger setback areas are being considered to decrease these impacts near wetlands.  

Community Awareness and Outreach

Sustainability is not just about environmental initiatives; it’s also about fostering a culture of responsibility and awareness within the community. Breckenridge excels here, drawing in residents and visitors alike.

Local schools, community organizations, and businesses actively promote and engage in sustainability education programs. These programs teach residents and visitors about the importance of preserving the environment and how they can contribute to these efforts.

Breck Create’s Precious Plastics is a fascinating combination of art studio and recycling center where plastics are gathered, sorted, ground, and then reprocessed on site into useful or artistic creations such as baskets, key clips, and decorative items.

A major push is currently underway to collect old and damaged plastic winter sleds and transform the plastic waste into new sleds once again.

The town supports local farmers and artisans, promoting the consumption of locally sourced products. Many local restaurants, such as Hearthstone, have farm to table initiatives. From June to September, there is a well-attended Farmers Market every Sunday with 40 local merchants. This reduces the carbon footprint associated with transporting goods and bolsters the local economy.

Breckenridge encourages green building practices by offering incentives and certifications for energy-efficient and sustainable construction. These practices encourage homeowners and businesses to invest in sustainable infrastructure.

While tourism is a major economic driver, Breckenridge heartily promotes responsible tourism. This means encouraging visitors to respect the environment, follow Leave No Trace principles, and engage in eco-friendly activities such as hiking, biking, and wildlife watching.

Water and Wildlife Conservation

Blue River after post-mining restoration.
Blue River after post-mining restoration. Photo by Michael Kompanik

The unique alpine ecosystem of Breckenridge is a treasure that requires vigilant conservation efforts. Here are some key lessons that this mountain community has embraced to help maintain and preserve this delicate environment:

In mountainous regions like Breckenridge, erosion can significantly threaten soil stability and water quality. The town employs erosion control measures, including reforestation projects, to protect its fragile ecosystem.

Sustainable water management is critical in an area dependent on snowmelt for water supply. Breckenridge manages its water resources efficiently, emphasizing conservation and responsible water use. Breckenridge is working to reduce annual water demands by 20% by the year 2030.

In support of this effort, the community embraces water efficiency programs to monitor and fix leaks, reducing water wastage. With regard to ski resorts, new standards for snow machines are being set, driving the introduction of more modern snow-making systems capable of using just 12 gallons of water a minute; previously, 300-plus gallons were consumed. In addition, some resorts are sourcing recycled/reclaimed water to create snow.

Promoting responsible outdoor recreation is vital in preserving the alpine environment. Breckenridge provides educational materials and enforces rules to ensure that hikers, skiers, and other outdoor enthusiasts minimize their impact on the ecosystem.

Looking to the Future

Breckenridge’s commitment to sustainability serves as an inspiration for mountain communities and tourist destinations worldwide. This picturesque town showcases the practical application of sustainable practices by striking a balance between environmental initiatives, community engagement, ecosystem preservation – and business.

However, the journey to sustainability is an ongoing mission. Breckenridge must adapt and innovate further as climate change challenges the delicate alpine ecosystem. The town’s commitment to preserving its natural beauty and unique environment will continue to being tested.

In an era where preserving our planet’s natural beauty is more critical than ever, Breckenridge, stands as a shining example of how responsible stewardship can coexist with vibrant tourism and community growth. This mountain paradise teaches us that sustainability is not just a buzzword, but a way of life that can be embraced and practiced, even – especially – in the most awe-inspiring natural settings.

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