Program certifies green tourism businesses

Tourism businesses in Alaska are getting certified for green practices, both as a way to move toward sustainability and a way to attract customers.

The certification, through a program called Adventure Green Alaska, gives tourism businesses a distinction for their efforts at sustainability. The program launched in 2009 and has since been taken up by the Alaska Travel Industry Association, a nonprofit representing tourism businesses around the state.

Some businesses don’t even have to change what they’re doing. Diamond M Ranch Resort in Kenai, an RV and tent campground and ranch on Kalifornsky Beach Road, is certified through the Adventure Green Alaska program. This is largely due to the owners’ composting and recycling efforts, which they were already doing, said owners Blair and Ronna Martin. After watching a lot of fish waste be hauled to the dump every summer, they decided to start using it for fertilizer, Ronna Martin said.

“For one thing, we know from back in Squanto’s time of the first Thanksgiving that fish is a good fertilizer, and we have hay fields,” she said. “… (We were) trying to figure out how can we utilize that good resource instead of just hauling it off to the dump. One, it’s costing money for the landfill, it’s costing money for us to have it hauled to the landfill and it’s a valuable resource that’s being thrown away.”

Throughout the summer, the Martins collect fish waste and add it to their compost pile to prevent it from going into the landfill. They hope to eventually work with the city of Kenai eventually as well to collect the fish waste off the beach during the Kenai River’s personal use dipnet fishery, which city workers currently sweep off the beaches and mill into the water to be carried away by the tide. Another option is for the fish to be dumped into some of the frequently overflowing dumpsters nearby to be hauled to Central Peninsula Landfill in Soldotna. Eventually, Diamond M would like to get a bagging machine as well for its fertilizer and distribute it to stores, but that’s an investment for them alone and maybe the city could work with them on it as well, Ronna Martin said.

Blair Martin said the scale of the pile — made of just woodchips and fish waste — allows it to stay hot enough to degrade salmon waste in a matter of days, which many smaller-scale composters may not be able to do. The farm has a large composting pile and a special attachment for its Bobcat designed for composting as well.

“You can have a blanket of insulation on it, but if your pile is only the thickness of that insulation, then yes (it can be hard to keep warm),” he said. “(It’s) critical mass, like a nuclear reactor.”

The Martins worked their way through the Adventure Green Alaska application without having to change much about how they operated their business. The application requires business owners to provide references and documentation of their business practices for review, including criteria such as operating in Alaska for at least two years, complying with U.S. environmental, consumer protection and labor laws and collaborating with priave and public land managers to enure that operations do not impact sites of cultural or historical importance. It exists for two basic reasons — recognizing businesses that are already working sustainably and encouraging businesses who aren’t running that way yet to move toward green practices.

“When the Alaska Travel Industry Association took in Adventure Green Alaska, that application was streamlined with the goal of getting more businesses (to have) their foot in the door with sustainability practices,” said Alaska Travel Industry Association President and Chief Executive Officer Sara Leonard.

The program coordinators considered criteria from other programs both in the U.S. and internationally, drawing from standards set out by the Sustainable Travel International and picking what might work for Alaska, she said.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association is also looking at aligning its program criteria with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, an organization that establishes criteria for sustainable tourism businesses worldwide. Coordinating the criteria could help some businesses that work regularly with cruiselines, some of which operate internationally and are seeking their vendors to have an ecological certification, Leonard said.

Working with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council could eventually bring a financial benefit as well, Leonard said. There can be some up-front costs to converting business practices over, such as switching to engines with lower emissions for fishing boats or starting up a recycling program. However, she said some people have said it pencils out.

“It can be dependent on the business,” Leonard said. “… Depending on what you’re converting, in the long run you’re eventually saving money because you have more efficient energy use of the material. I’ve heard anecdotally it can be a good business decision.”

Part of the application is a free-form essay that allows applicants to say what they’re doing that may not fit into a pre-set category. Leonard said this gives the Alaska Travel Industry Association some idea of what unique things business owners are doing, too.

There are travelers looking for specifically eco-friendly businesses, so the certification can give businesses an edge, she said. For others, it’s just a lifestyle choice from the beginning, she said.

That’s how it was for the Martins. Blair Martin said the business has lost customers over the smell of the composting, but they’ll continue to do it because it’s the right thing to do.

“I felt that it was the right thing to do to save that,” he said. “What’s the most cost-effective business model? Leave it in the dumpster. My time is worth more than that compost. My customers suffer because I’m not here serving them, I’m twisting compost … it tears my heart in half. I have two minds: customer service and doing the right thing.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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