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By Tripp Baltz
Winter is warming. Snowfall is declining. And across the U.S., ski resorts face the threat of ever-shrinking seasons.
If poor snow years persist, job losses could follow, according to industry sources interviewed by Bloomberg Law. And it’s not just resort operators such as Aspen Skiing Co., Vail Resorts Inc., and KSL Capital Partners LLC that will take it in the wallet, but the wider outdoor retail sector and ancillary businesses such as restaurants and lodging in ski towns.
“Skiers and snowboarders are seeing climate change happen right before our eyes in the mountains as winter seasons shorten and snow lines rise,” said Jeremy Jones, professional snowboarder and founder of Protect Our Winters, an advocacy group that recently released a report detailing the economic impact of a changing climate on winter sports.
During down snow years, skier and snowboarder visits plummet, resulting in lost jobs and reduced revenue for the industry, Protect Our Winters said in its report. Low snow years from 2001 to 2016 decreased the value added by the industry to the U.S. economy by more than $1 billion and cost 17,400 jobs compared with an average season, it said.
“The industry, ski trade groups, and businesses need to take climate change seriously as an existential threat,” Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Snowmass, Aspen Skiing Co., and a POW board member, told Bloomberg Law.
“Now is the time for athletes, snow lovers and folks who care about American jobs to come together to demand that our politicians take climate action on a national and global level,” Jones said in a statement provided to Bloomberg Law.
Protect Our Winters in its report quantified the economic contributions of skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling in a changing climate, focusing in particular on how winter tourism is affected by warming and low snowfall.
“The $887 billion outdoor recreation industry is uniquely threatened by climate change,” the Outdoor Industry Association says on its web site.
In the winter season of 2015-16, more than 20 million people participated in downhill skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling, with economic effects spreading to ski town hotels, resorts, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, sporting goods stores, and gas stations, according to the POW report.
Winter sports supported more than 191,000 jobs, generating an estimated $6.9 billion in wages and adding a total of $11.3 billion to the national economy, the report said.
Ski resorts bring in the bulk of their revenue during two time frames—around Christmas and New Year’s Day and again in the March spring break season, Schendler said.
Increasingly, those two time periods are nearing the edges of a gradually shorter ski season.
“If you’re losing a big chunk of money at Christmas and then another big chunk at the end of March, eventually you’re not going to be viable as a business,” he said.
The resort was so warm at the beginning of the current season, Aspen Skiing Co. set up a soup kitchen to feed employees who had been hired, but were idled, by severely low snowfall.
“It was not a huge expense for us, we’re in the food and beverage business,” Schendler said. “As a resort, we have to hire people who come from all over, assuming the season is going to start around Thanskgiving. This year, we told them, ‘As soon as it gets cold, you can work. Meanwhile, the least we can do is feed you.”
Over time, seasons at ski resorts are shrinking day by day, Mario Molina, POW executive director, told Bloomberg Law. And with the shrinking season, winter tourism workforces will get smaller, he said.
“Low snow means lift operators get fewer hours and ski instructors don’t get to teach lessons,” he said. The economies of “entire towns depend on the influx of visitors and skiers during the winter.”
Molina said the key takeaway of the POW report is not “doom and gloom, but if we take drastic action on climate now, we can keep global warming under 2-1/2 degrees and still save our winter season. But it will take aggressive action by the industry.”
Climate change effects vary across disparities in local climate, altitude, and topography of ski areas. Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin, with some of the highest skiable terrain in North America, hasn’t seen a reduction in its 230-day season.
But when the low-snow year of 2011-12 came along, forcing the ski area to shut down earlier than normal, it ramped up its investments in renewable energy as well as its efforts to reduce carbon emissions, Sha Miklas, senior manager of guest services and sustainability at the ski area in Summit County, Colo., told Bloomberg Law.
Miklas agreed with POW that declining snowfall presents a steep challenge for the industry. Topping out at 13,000-feet, Arapahoe Basin has been spared some of the climate change impacts affecting other resorts. Still, addressing the problem “is the right thing to do, and our industry depends on it,” she said. “Many of the skiers who come to visit us learned to ski on the East or West Coast. If they’re not learning how to ski, that could have an effect on us.”
The National Ski Areas Association launched a voluntary Climate Challenge program dedicated to getting participating ski areas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while reaping other benefits such as reduced costs for energy use. “We started it as a way for resorts that didn’t want to wait for Washington to take action,” Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the association in Lakewood, Colo., told Bloomberg Law.
Participating resorts have to do an inventory of the carbon emissions among other mitigation strategies. “If you are going to advocate for action, you better be doing what you can in your own operations,” she said. “Resorts have to have skin in the game.”
She touted the environmental stewardship program at California’s Squaw Valley, which aims to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy as soon as December.
In addition to mitigation, resorts are also implementing adaptation strategies, she said. Many are greatly ramping up their summer activities, including golf and mountain biking, Link said. “We’ve been making snow for decades,” she said. “Climate change is a challenge for all industries, we’re not alone in facing it, but we’re particularly adept at managing its challenges,” she said. “We’re optimistic about the future.”
Currently, summer business represents only a tiny amount of ski resort revenues, Schendler said. The winter season represents more than 85 percent of Aspen’s annual revenue, with employment following a similar pattern.
Schendler said it’s good for ski resorts to focus on adaptation strategies, but they’ll need to get involved in bigger political change to reverse the effects of climate change.
“The talking points from some of the trade groups are, ‘We can make snow and be a good four-season resort,’” he said. “But if the industry mobilized with all its power, voice, and media reach, we could have the political influence to get in place the policies needed to fix these things.”
The ski industry “has a unique understanding of climate and needs to explain it to the public,” he said.
Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association, which has North Face, Patagonia, Columbia and Cascade Designs as members, said the group shares the concerns raised by POW. She said a recent survey found that 25 percent of its member companies set annual goals related to climate change or carbon reduction and 63 percent invest in renewable energy.
Climate change makes winter seasons “more unpredictable and has far-reaching implications on the amount and timing of spring runoff, impacting our water supply, agricultural production and more,” Roberts said.
The group recently announced its support for California legislation (S.B. 100) that would increase the state’s current Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requirement from 50 percent of generated electricity coming from renewable energy sources to 60 percent by 2030 and put the state on a path to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2045, she said.
“We are also sponsoring, in partnership with Mountainfilm, a Climate Summit in May in Telluride where the intent is to better help brands and retailers communicate the importance of activism on climate to their employees and customers,” she said.
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