Interview With Jeremy Jones - Founder of Protect Our Winters

A backcountry skier in the woods with sun shining through trees.

DieterMeyrl / Getty Images

When you've spent the better part of two decades out in the backcountry riding some of the toughest lines in snowboarding and developing a deep desire to protect mountain environments, global warming is undeniably a pressing and personal concern. When you're Jeremy Jones how do go about transforming that concern into action? You start by founding Protect Our Winters, a non-profit dedicated to uniting the winter sports community:

TREEHUGGER: What was the inspiration for the founding of Protect Our Winters?

JEREMY JONES: Through snowboarding I started to see more and more the mountains were changing. Something needed to be done; I had built some great relationships in the snowboard and ski industry; and, I felt like our world needed to come together and slow down climate change.

I went back and forth on the idea for a while, because I had a lot of thoughts of, "Who am I to start this foundation." I'm not an environmental saint. But it was something that just wouldn't go away. So I went full on into it, because I felt our industry really needed it...and Protect Our Winters was a place to start to get everyone together and start making a difference.

TH: How long ago was it when you stopped using a snowmobile for backcountry access?

JJ: Probably two years ago. Snowmobiles were never a huge part of my world. I didn't like the harm of it, but I also didn't like the experience of it, being out there with machines.

Hiking has always been a huge part of my snowboarding, but when it came time to film it often involved snowmobiles and helicopters. Now I've surrounded myself with a group of people who are just really excited to get ourselves far into the mountains, away from people and away from machines.

I'm also very aware of my carbon footprint. I know where my shortcomings are. As much as people attach themselves to the snowmobiles and the helicopters, which I don't use much -- haven't in a while -- to access the mountains, I still have this footprint.

The reality is: I have buddies that live in, say, Whistler, and snowmobile every day, but they never get on a plane and they have a four-stroke snowmobile, drive it out of their house... At the end of the day, me hopping on a plane to go hike these mountains blows that out of the water.

TH: It's true. When you look at any person's carbon footprint just one flight is really significant.

You said you were never that into using machines to access the backcountry. What's the essential difference in experience for you? Has your experience of the backcountry changed now that hiking is the only way in?

JJ: There's no question that the experience is so much richer. That's a big part of it. I started to realize [that] the further away I went, the more time I spent in the mountains, the more I was getting out of it. It just became really clear.

Something I had always wanted to do...was get to these harder to reach areas that could only be reached on foot. But I was in this industry that wasn't set up to go out and do that, to be pro snowboarders, go out and do that and document it. I had to kind of create my own world to do that.

There was some transition with that, but it started to really become clear: The biggest highs I was getting was, and is, to go as far out into the mountains, spend as much time out there, hike what I'm riding. It really just far surpasses the high I was getting off snowmobiles and helicopters.

TH: In terms of the industry not being focused on your approach to snowboarding, which way do you see it going? Is the industry catching up with this approach or is it off on another trajectory entirely?

JJ: I definitely see more people getting into accessing backcountry riding on foot. The cost of things, the more that people are aware of the harm on the environment, it is becoming more and more prevalent.

An example: Four years ago there was no such thing as a human-powered movie. Now there are two or three out this year and it's not totally out there to do that.

One thing that I hope do with this movie Deeper that I'm working show people that world class snowboarding can be done on foot. That it's not just for that elite class that has a heli budget to do it. Because there's amazing snowboarding to be had in a lot of people's backyards if they kind of go that little extra mile to get.

TH: In the time you've been snowboarding, what sort of changes have you noticed in the environment?

JJ: One, more radical weather. Where October is January and January could feel like May, where the temperatures are all over the map. That leads to some different snowpacks that keep us on our toes. More fluctuation for sure.

I spend a lot of time in Europe and...I can see where the glacier ends now to where it did fifteen years ago is totally, visually different. It's clear cut. You have to hike just that much further. In Tahoe, we're still getting a ton of snow up high but these lower elevation spots that we like to ride, it's becoming harder and harder to get those spots in good conditions.

In general the winters seem to be starting later.

An example of the kind of drastic up and down cycle: I did October 15th I had a great of snowboarding in the high Sierra. That's the earliest I've ever snowboarded. That's all gone now [two weeks later] and it may not be until December 15th that we have conditions like that again.

TH: How do you explain to people the difference between climate and weather? I think of it because a friend of mine in Vermont who works at one of the resorts recently posted on Facebook that it was like 18 degrees out and someone responded, "So much for global warming." How do you explain to someone that, yes, we'll still have snow, we'll still have winters, but this is still something you need be concerned with?

JJ: Climate change is a hard thing because it's such a big picture deal. It's hard for people to look [at that] big picture. You really need to look at climate change over ten year periods, twenty year periods. If you do that the evidence is pretty darn concrete.

I would say with that, that brings me to some of the challenges we have with Protect Our Winters. A person starts changing their lightbulb and wonders if I'm making a difference... We need to start thinking about this in a little bit longer term. For one, if we all change a lightbulb the results are a lot more attainable.

The other thing is that we need to start somewhere and we're at the first step of this. We can all sit back and go "Climate change is brutal and out of control, but there's nothing I can do about it." ....I can't sit back and do that. I have kids and, it's like, we need to start somewhere.

That's where Protect Our Winters comes in. What we're doing today, I'm not going to see the benefits of it, but hopefully my kids will or my kid's kids will. It's tough for people to get a handle on that, but that's just the reality of climate change.

TH: You've branched off to start your own snowboard line, Jones Snowboards. What's going on with that?

JJ: I wanted to really have control of what I was doing. I wanted to be part of an authentic company making the best products in the world; and have that company have the values that I wanted. To do that I felt like I had to do that myself.

I've spent a lot of energy convincing companies to go down the road I want to go down. And I've kind of run out of energy on that. I feel like I've kind of been beating my head against the wall. It's just became clear that I had to walk the walk, and start my own program.

TH: By walking the walk, is it materials, marketing, what does that mean to you?

JJ: There are two things: I'm really into backcountry snowboarding and freeriding. That's a segment that the general snowboard world, these companies, it's an afterthought to them. I felt like there was room for better improvement with a company focused on that part of snowboarding. We could make some advancements. Hopefully inspire others to get into the backcountry.

Then there is the environmental factor of it. That's embracing these more sustainable materials that are out there, but the key to is having to walk a fine line: If you make a board that is made out of all these great, sustainable materials and it falls apart in a year...

I'm a firm believer in performance, durability first. Sustainability is the third thing you bring in, but you can't bring it in if it hurts the durability and performance of the product. The snowboard world is set up [with the idea that] you need a new snowboard every year. And that's just wrong. These snowboards last a long time.

The bottom line is, the greenest snowboard in the world is still a toxic snowboard.

TH: When does the line actually debut?

JJ: It'll be out in the fall of 2010. We'll launch it at this winter's trade shows.

TH: You've spoken before about how the snowboard industry is really focused on some 15-year old skateboard demographic, one which really starts to exclude people after a certain age, after which you may not want to hit the park all day. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

JJ: Just speaking for the sport, these big companies that really lead the industry have gone all in on that [demographic], where right next door we have skiing, a sport where, I'm still out there with my mom ripping around the mountain. Whereas with skateboarding, you don't see that many people over 30 skateboarding.

At Protect Our Winters we spend a lot of energy on these kids. As I've learned more and more about how to tackle climate change, more and more of our money is going into these 15 year old kids, and even younger, to try and get them on board.

The cool thing is we're starting to see some change. I see a little bit of it here are there, where a twelve year old kid goes, "You can't recycle that, but you can that." Calling out parents.

I always say that as you get older we either lose people to the backcountry or to the beach. The thing with the backcountry is it's such an intimate experience with the mountains that you end up wanting to protect them. You're not taking it for granted. Just your love continues to grow for the mountains.