Global warming's reluctant poster child

 

When a report warning of global warming's disastrous impacts on skiing garnered national headlines in December, activists hoped the news would encourage a serious response both at home and in Washington, D.C. But the ski industry itself, where bad press means all the difference between a banner year and a bust, greeted the headlines with all the enthusiasm of a rainstorm on the slopes.

Industry leaders quickly jumped in to do damage control. Vail Resorts ran an ad in The New York Times under the banner, "The Climate HAS CHANGED," with photos of skiers and snowboarders wallowing in fresh powder at the company's playgrounds, which include Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge in Colorado, as well as three resorts around Lake Tahoe.

The company's CEO, Rob Katz, wrote a letter to the editor of the Denver Post berating those who "alarm people with images of melting snow." "Count me in the category of someone who is very worried about climate change," Katz wrote, and then added, "You can count me out of the group that says we need to address climate change to save skiing."

Save wildlife habitat and prevent natural disasters, sure, Katz intoned, but let's keep skiing out of this.

The reaction revealed an industry deeply torn between protecting its long-term survival and ensuring its short-term profitability. "Ski area owners and operators are aware of the scientific studies and projections regarding the long-term potential impacts of climate change," the National Ski Areas Association said in a position statement, "but we remain optimistic as an industry."

The forecast does not inspire confidence, however. The report that made headlines in December, Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States, provided a long list of alarming reminders: By the end of the century, winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit in North America. In high-emissions scenarios, the winter snowpack in the Cascades and the Sierra is projected to decrease between 40 and 70 percent by 2050. If we continue to pollute the way we do now, skiing will be confined to the top quarter of Aspen Mountain in average years by the end of the century. Utah's Park City Mountain Resort will have no snowpack whatsoever.

The report then attempted to put a price tag on all this, calculating that, over the course of the last decade, ski areas lost more than $1 billion in potential revenue to bad snow years. Failure to respond quickly to climate change, the authors wrote, "spells economic devastation for a winter sports industry deeply dependent upon predictable, heavy snowfall."

Commissioned by the nonprofit Protect Our Winters (POW for short) and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the report was part of a broader effort to highlight the economic significance of outdoor recreation, and to use that as a lever to promote conservation. But the ski industry has been reluctant to talk about this looming catastrophe, even for the sake of prolonging its own life.

"It's a tough reality to swallow," says Elizabeth Burakowski, a Ph.D. candidate in snow science at the University of New Hampshire and one of the report's co-authors. "It's bad for business."

The National Ski Areas Association does have a program called the Climate Challenge that encourages resorts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- though it says nothing about all the emissions spewed when skiers travel to the resorts -- and it has advocated for clean energy programs on the national level. And many individual resorts, including Vail, have cleaned up their operations by shifting to renewables like wind power. But when it comes to the larger fight against climate change, most industry leaders say they have enough to worry about already.

Nationally, the number of visits to ski resorts has remained essentially flat since the industry started keeping track in 1979. Analysts blame younger people, who aren't replacing aging Baby Boomers, the ski industry's main market. And now comes the news that snowboarding, a sport largely credited for saving the industry in the 1990s, is on a steep downhill slide. A report released this winter by RRC Associates, a company that tracks winter recreation, found that the percentage of snowboarding visits to ski areas has declined over the past two years, while the number of days boarders head to the mountain has dropped sharply in the past decade.

At Mammoth Mountain, environmental affairs director Ron Cohen says he's got his hands full just keeping up with Forest Service and state regulations. The ski area, he says, simply lacks the resources to be more active on climate change. "Everybody knows -- people who work here and think about strategy -- we're not ignorant of the issue," Cohen says. "We know that there are these discussions, these issues, scientific theories, facts -- all of the above -- but we're focused on business strategy a lot more than we are on something we have a lot less control over."

Return to:

Climate change turns an already troubled ski industry on its head
High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -