Green Desert

Two attractions in the Southwest for environmentally minded tourists.

November/December 2018

by Allan Richter

Every year, millions of tourists and travelers leave their mark at their starting and ending locations, and points in between, in search of a change from their daily rituals. These resorts and destinations are doing their part to help the environment and offset that impact.

All Aboard for Eco-friendly Ways

The two-hour roundtrip ride on the Grand Canyon Railway between Williams, Arizona, and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon aims to put you in the mindset of the Wild West. Actors reenact a train robbery and a guitar player belts out old-timey music. As a bonus, if you happen to be on the right train, you just may be doing your part to help the environment.

The Grand Canyon Railway’s nearly century-old Steam Locomotive No. 4960 was modified in 2009 to run on recycled waste vegetable oil. The steam that drives the locomotive is the result of the waste oil—rather than wood or coal as in the old days—heating water, which is mostly reclaimed. Because the eco-friendly approach is costly, particularly transporting the recycled oil, the train runs only on special occasions, such as Earth Day. On most days, a diesel engine pulls the train cars.

“I think steam trains in general are not particularly practical or economical, and are more of a novelty,” says David Perkins, sustainability director for Grand Canyon National Park Lodges on the South Rim. “There are better ways to run trains now. But there are train enthusiasts out there, and I don’t think we want to completely go away from running that steam engine.”

The water that converts to steam comes from holding ponds, or water retention basins that collect rainwater. How much is collected depends on the monsoon season, which runs from the beginning of July until October. The Southwest saw severe-enough drought conditions to warn against starting fires in campgrounds early in the season, but then the rains came and the drought lifted.

Whether fueled by vegetable oil or a diesel engine, the Grand Canyon Railway is helping the park keep a relatively small carbon footprint by taking roughly 70,000 cars off the road—about 1,000 a day—in peak season, Perkins says.

The railway isn’t the only transportation mode helping to keep the Grand Canyon green—the park’s 150-strong pack of mules contributes by feeding on “pre-consumer” food waste that would otherwise go to a landfill. The food waste comes from lodge kitchens and includes melon rinds, broccoli stalks, carrot shavings, apples and other scraps that never see a consumer’s plate. Veterinarians monitor the food quality and the health of the mules—which take visitors into the canyon, and haul equipment and mail—ensuring that the animals do not get scraps that are not good for them, such as sugar, citrus and pineapple rinds.

Xanterra Travel Collection, a privately held company that runs the mule program and owns and operates the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and the Grand Canyon Railway, composts roughly 1.6 million pounds of mule manure each year, Perkins says.

In 2014, the year after the food waste program with the mules was launched, the animals received 29,000 pounds of kitchen scraps out of a total 3.3 million pounds of hotel and restaurant garbage sent to a landfill. Xanterra has since cracked down on creating waste, resulting in lower numbers: Last year 7,400 pounds of kitchen waste went to the mules, Perkins says, out of 1.4 million pounds of total waste that went to a landfill.

Among its latest initiatives, the park is recycling K-cups and housekeeping gloves. Says Perkins, “We’re always looking for opportunities to recycle or move additional waste streams away from the landfill.” Visit thetrain.com.

 

Embracing the Environment on the Pojoaque Pueblo

Visitors to the Hilton Santa Fe Buffalo Thunder are greeted by a tall bronze sculpture of a Native American Buffalo Dancer, his left hand held high and clutching a bow and arrow. The sculpture, by artist George Rivera, a former Pojoaque governor, speaks volumes about the pride of the Pojoaque people, whose pueblo owns the resort and on whose land the property sits.

The 397-room hotel, whose architectural style and aesthetics Rivera is responsible for, brings nature indoors. Public spaces are designed in soft earth tones; and the property has a natural, fluid feel rather than the finite, boxy style of many hotels. Much of Rivera’s on-property art, and that of other Native artists, depict animals and nature.

So it’s no surprise that the New Mexican pueblo and resort takes its environmental responsibilities seriously.

In fact, the Buffalo Dancer sculpture out front may as well reflect the assertiveness of the pueblo and the resort in recycling valuable resources—especially water in the arid Southwest—and combating environmental waste.

To combat drought conditions, which occur on a regular basis, the resort recycles its waste water via a pueblo-based treatment plant and then uses the gray, or recycled, water to irrigate its golf course.

The golf course was built nearly two decades ago for 36 holes, scaled back at one point to 18 because of a lack of water to fully irrigate, and now features 27 holes because they can be accommodated by the treatment plant. The resort opened in 2008, expanding the need for water and creating the opportunity to add 9 holes to the golf course’s then 18.

The priority on the course in terms of water are the greens—the closely trimmed areas around the holes—followed by the tee boxes, then the fairways and then the rough. In fact, however, the greens receive the least amount of water.

“I don’t water my greens every single day,” says Jimmy Rodriguez, the resort’s director of golf course maintenance. “I watered my greens [five days ago] and really got them soaked in. I may water them tonight, but the tees, the fairway and the rough get watered every single night. The carts are driving on them and there’s lots of wear and tear on them, and you’re trying to make sure the grass is staying hydrated.”

In addition to conserving irrigation water, the resort and pueblo save water—to the tune of 5 million gallons a year—with state-of-the-art washers in its laundry facility, the second largest in New Mexico. And the dryers reduce gas emissions by 50%.

Sustainability efforts are not just behind the scenes, and resort guests see the fruits of those efforts directly.

Doors and windows, for example, are bought from Sierra Pacific Company in Red Bluff, California. The company follows standards of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), exceeding even the stringent forestry regulations in California and Washington. Sierra Pacific plants 7 million new trees annually, and will nearly triple the amount of wood growing on its lands in the next 100 years, with average tree diameters nearly doubling over that period.

At the dining table, too, guests can partake in eco-friendly practices. The resort serves fare from its organic herb garden, as well as locally farmed produce. Some meat is also local, coming, for example, from a bison ranch on the pueblo.

So while you may think you’re being extravagant by ordering braised buffalo short ribs with creamy blue corn polenta and vegetables at the resort’s Red Sage restaurant, you’re also doing your part for the environment. Visit hiltonbuffalothunder.com.

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