Entrepreneur, Social Innovator, Environmentalist: Charles Steele - Ziptrek Ecotours, Inc.

If you have never harnessed yourself to a steel cable 200 feet above the ground, then launched yourself into the ancient forest canopy at top speed, the idea might sound a little daunting. But for thousands of adventurers each year, the opportunity to take flight is irresistible.

Ziptrek Ecotours is located just outside the popular resort town of Whistler, offering guests a unique vantage point of 33 acres of old growth and second growth forests, steep cliff faces and lush forest floor. Those who prefer to keep their feet on something a little more solid can explore the forest canopy via Ziptrek’s series of suspension bridges – a stunning experience in itself.

Since Ziptrek’s 2002 opening, the ecotourism outfit has garnered praise from some of Canada’s biggest travel and adventure magazines. Ask any guest, though, and you’ll quickly see that the company isn’t built on thrills alone.

Over the course of a three hour tour, guests are taught about the natural beauty surrounding them and the necessity of protecting it.

According to co-founder Charles Steele, it is here, in the midst of the ancient boreal forest, that people are most open to learning about the natural systems on which they depend. In addition to being skilled outdoor adventure leaders, Ziptrek’s guides are experts in sustainable development. They use The Natural Step’s basic principles for sustainability as a foundation to teach guests, and draw on examples from neighbouring Whistler to show how a community is taking action to become more sustainable.

Steele and long time friend and business partner David Udow opened Ziptrek in 2002. The business was conceived of as a way to combine fun and education on some of the most pressing issues of our time.

“They say education leads to awareness and awareness leads to change,” Steele said. “That’s where the idea came from to attract people to a three hour sustainability lesson by using something fun like ziplines.”

The Genesis of Leadership on Canada’s West Coast

Young people often have an intuitive understanding of sustainability, in a way that it can take years of learning for adults to develop. When Steele was a child, he asked his father an important question. He knew that he wasn’t supposed to breathe the exhaust fumes of a car. If that was the case, he asked, why was it okay to keep running the car? Wouldn’t the fumes fill up the sky?

“My father is one of the most intelligent people I have met to this day, but his answer to my question was very reflective of the thinking of the time,” Steele recalled. “Nature was seen as so large and immutable that the activities of humans were like fleas on an elephant, and had little or no impact on the whole scheme of things.”

Since then, our collective understanding of how we affect natural systems has changed considerably. It turns out that Steele was right: since cars were introduced to society, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 25%, and the resulting effects of global warming and respiratory illnesses are becoming increasingly apparent.

Years later, Steele had a family of his own. He recalls watching the truckloads of wood being carted along the highway by his house and wondering how much of the majestic BC forests would remain by the time his kids grew up.

“I realized these changes to the environment were happening so fast,” Steele said. “But when I talked to other people about it, I would get this knee jerk, head-in-sand reaction. The problem seemed so big that no one even felt comfortable discussing it.”

Steele and Udow built the business, quite literally, from the ground up. The bridges, decks, walkways and cables that allow guests to explore the forest canopy are designed to minimize disruption to the surrounding forest. The wooden structures are built with locally sourced cedar, which is naturally able to withstand the elements, organic degradation and insect attacks without the addition of chemicals. The company is introducing hybrid vehicles to its fleet to reduce its contribution to greenhouse gases and uses micro hydro and solar energy systems to power much of its operations.

Ziptrek’s success is evidence of how a business built on a sustainable foundation can thrive. The company has quintupled in size since it opened in 2002, and has been listed as one of the top ten adventures in Canada. In 2008, Steele and Udow were finalists in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneurs of the Year Awards for the Pacific region’s Emerging Entrepreneur category.

Despite these successes, Steele can’t help but worry for the future.

“What makes me concerned,” he explained, “is that we may be starting too late and not trying hard enough. That we’ll lose before we really turn things around.”

He has cause to be concerned. Last year, the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment pointed out that 60% of the earth’s ecosystem services are being degraded or used unsustainably. The consequences are already manifesting in increased rates of poverty and disease for billions of people.

For his part, Steele takes all this as a call to action. In addition to his ongoing efforts to make Ziptrek a more sustainable business, he became co-chair of the newly founded Whistler Sustainability Centre this summer. The non-profit organization is dedicated to accelerating the journey toward sustainability in Whistler and beyond by creating educational tools and offering consulting services. To learn more about the Centre, visit their webpage here.