How Ski Resorts Are Fighting Climate Change

The non-profit group Mountain Pact encourages mountain towns to unite politically. The goal: galvanize politicians to protect winter.

Feb 26, 2015
Outside Magazine
ski in william

Much has been made about the impact of global warming but nowhere is it felt deeper than at ski resort towns.    Photo: trysil/Flickr

As New England confronts sidewalk avalanches and digs itself out from underneath a blizzard, West Coast skiers are dealing with the opposite problem. Squaw Valley, which averaged 450 inches of snowfall per year between 2008 and 2014, has received less than a third of that amount this season, according to a February snow report. The snowpack situation is so dire there that the International Ski Federation canceled the skicross and snowboardcross World Cup two weeks before it was scheduled to launch, in early March.

Much has been made about the impact of global warming but nowhere is it felt deeper than at ski resort towns, whose economies are pegged almost entirely to snowfall. It sounds obvious, but if it doesn’t snow, no one comes to town to ski, which means no one buys après beer or dinner or groceries or gasoline, and the town loses a revenue stream it depends on.

This isn't just happening in California, a state in the grip of a 100-year “megadrought,” but across the entire western high country. A 2008 study from the University of Maryland estimated that Colorado (which has the largest ski-based economy in the country) would lose $375 million in revenue and 4,500 jobs by 2017 due to skier attrition from lack of snow.

“It’s a bigger issue than, ‘Oh, we can’t ski,’" says Diana Madson, executive director of the non-profit Mountain Pact, a new advocacy group focused on stemming the impacts of climate change on ski towns. “It’s loss of jobs and major environmental degradation.”

In Tahoe, where January snowpack levels are the lowest on record, Madson is drawing up ways to help mountain towns survive the increasingly warming winters. She studied the effect of climate change on mountain towns at the Yale School of Forestry, and found that drought, lack of snow, and more frequent fires were chipping away at the economic base of ski towns nationwide. She also noticed that towns were spending resources addressing the symptoms but not the larger cause of distress. The observation led her to the novel idea that ski towns, if they were to pool their resources and knowledge, might become a formidable political bloc. If only they had a common framework, Madson thought. Last summer, she started Mountain Pact, which galvanizes those communities to lobby for the kind environmental policies that will help the high country adapt to climate change.

“Climate conversation has been focused on urban areas and coastal areas,” Madson says. “Mountain towns are not being heard.”

And they should be. Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who co-authored a 2012 study about climate change’s impact to tourism, says that there’s already strong evidence that mountain towns are suffering from winter warmth. The country’s $12.2 billion winter tourism industry can’t survive on snow-gun slopes, the study says, and ski resorts account for 36 percent of winter tourism-related employment. “In order to protect winter—and the hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods depend upon a snow-filled season—we must act now to support policies that protect our climate, and in turn, our slopes,” the report says. 

The notion that climate variability is melting away the viability of resort living isn’t new. Sustainable practices have been baked into ski resort operations for a while now. Aspen, for instance, is capturing methane from a nearby coal plant to power its snow guns, and Deer Valley runs its snowcats on bio-diesel. But a lot of those actions have occurred only at the resort level, and smaller towns without Aspen’s robust economy can be paralyzed by the scope of adapting their infrastructure to the changing climate.

Madson, who grew up on the west side of the Sierra Nevadas, spent last summer traveling across the West, talking to town managers and local business councils to see if they’d join Mountain Pact. By the fall, she had a handful of mountain towns, including Aspen, Tahoe, Vail, and Park City on board. The partners drew up a list of common problems, like drought mitigation and wildfire. “We didn’t have a focus on legislation before,” says Matt Abbott, Park City’s environmental project manager. “Together we’ve got a lot more leverage than alone.”

Park City has had a climate adaptation plan in place since 2009. It caps the community’s water and energy use, and outlines a concrete plan for smart growth and disaster relief. Park City is on the front end of the curve of climate planning, in part because it has a diversified economic base and good funding, but Abbot says he’d like to pave the way for smaller towns with less robust economies.

Madson says that’s why it’s important to band towns together, because a lot of the big picture things they’re facing are the same. They can leverage their collective voice to change state and federal policy and piggyback off of the good ideas of other towns, like Park City’s adaptation plan. “A lot of it is unsexy stuff, like water quality, forest health, and new business plans,” Madson says. “These towns tend to be progressive, they recognize [climate change] as an issue, but there are levels of investment that feel overwhelming. They say, ‘We know it’s happening but we don’t always know what to do and we don’t have any money to do it.’”

Mountain Pact and its partners are focusing on three objectives: adaptation, mitigation, and federal prioritization. For example, they’re working with the Obama administration to block expanded coal leasing on Department of Interior land, and to keep carbon emissions in check. They’ve outlined a plan for how the federal government can support more resilient water infrastructure. In January, they introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would allocate more funding to wildfire prevention and give mountain towns more ways to adapt before they’re in crisis mode.

The National Ski Industry Association, which has been trying to reduce the ski world’s climate footprint since 2002, says that Mountain Pact is an ally in the effort to buffer ski areas against climate change. “Out of the gates I can tell you that the ski industry is in total agreement on supporting the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act,” says Geraldine Link, the NSAA’s Director of Public Policy. The NSAA is also lining up with other industry groups that focus on climate change, like Protect Our Winters, a winter sports advocacy group launched in 2007 by big-mountain snowboarder Jeremy Jones.

Mountain Pact is also trying to make mountain towns aware of policy that will impact them. “Those can be hidden,” Madson says. For example, last year the U.S. Forest Service proposed a directive that would prevent a ski area owner from selling off private water rights while the ski area is operational. As it stands, a ski resort’s plumbing could be shut off in the event of a sale if the water rights weren’t included in the transaction. “It was a big deal,” Madson says, “but it was buried as agency policy.”

One of the biggest challenges in addressing climate change is that it’s intangible and wide-ranging. It also makes Madson’s job tougher: It’s hard to convince communities to finance projects that don’t pay immediate dividends or generate easily measurable returns on investment.

But she’s already gaining ground. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is on the floor in both the House and the Senate. It has bipartisan support (which is rare for an environmental bill), as well as backing from environmental groups and government agencies. “This bill is a welcome shift to long-term planning for fire that will greatly benefit our communities and our public lands,” says Ani Kame'enui, forest expert for Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign. Across the aisle, parties say they like its smart allocation of government funds and forward-thinking approach—exactly what Madson is pushing for.

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