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Friday, 07 December 2012 04:17

Activists, Researchers Work to Rally Winter Sports Industry on Climate Change

The winter sports industry needs to step up its efforts to fight climate change if it wants to survive, a group of researchers and activists argued Thursday.

"The ski and snowboard industry has known for years that climate change threatened the business," said Auden Schendler, Aspen Ski Co.'s vice president for sustainability. "If it doesn't snow, we're going to have less revenue. That makes it harder for people in ski towns to feed their families."

University of New Hampshire researcher Elizabeth Burakowski looked at the past decade's best and worst snow years nationwide, and found the difference was roughly $1 billion in lost sales and more than 13,000 lost jobs in the winter tourism industry, which averages $12.2 billion a year.

She found that most of the country's downhill ski areas have reported decreasing days of operation as snowpacks arrive later and melt earlier.

"Climate change is expected to lead to shorter winters, and that leads to economic uncertainty," Burakowski said.

Regions that typically got snow all winter are seeing a greater mix of rain in their weather, which shortens ski seasons. She also cited research showing nighttime minimum temperatures have been rising, which could affect ski resorts' ability to make artificial snow.

The study looked at skier visits between 1999 and 2010, and measured the difference in activity between the two busiest and two weakest years. Burakowski found Washington state visits dropped 28 percent and Montana dropped 4 percent in the poor years. It also reported that snowmobile registrations in the same period have been flat.

Natural Resources Defense Council climate and clean air program assistant director Antonia Herzog said people who depend on winter sports for their jobs need to think beyond their industry and get politically involved. That means advocating for power plant pollution control and carbon sequestration, she said.

"We need to address carbon pollution, and we believe it can be addressed at a reasonable cost," Herzog said. "The health benefits far outweigh those costs."


At Lookout Pass Ski Area on the Montana-Idaho border, Chief Executive Officer Phil Edholm said his territory actually looks likely to see more snow if current climate change models bear out. But that doesn't mean the industry should ignore the problem, he said.

"The climate change is real," Edholm said. "And I think there is a need to get involved at a local level. We're pretty much in touch with the environment as operators in the mountains, and we depend on some kind of consistency in the weather. I think many of us will make the effort to do that." The ski industry has been active, according to Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association Director John Gifford, which represents Whitefish Mountain Resort and 32 other ski areas.

"There's no denial we need to do better with the environmental aspects of our business," Gifford said. "I'm aware the National Ski Association has done quite a bit to help and advocate for environmental things in Washington, D.C. And I think everybody agrees humans have had an effect on the climate. As far as how individual resorts deal with it from an economic standpoint, we're looking for ways to be more efficient."

But Stan Spenser of the Missoula Snowgoers said the loss of places to ride was a bigger issue for snowmobilers.

"My position would be the lack of snow hasn't been an issue for our sport," Spenser said. "The areas we're able to ride at have been curtailed considerably. There doesn't seem to be any letup on backing off on closures."

Schendler said most winter sports communities can't hope to replace their ski hills with other industries. If they want to survive, he said, those ski communities have to start fighting for bigger changes.

"A lot are doing things like reducing the carbon footprint at individual resorts, which is fine," Schendler said. "But they need to go to Congress. We have a 21 million person base of enthusiasts in the sports world. We need to drive critical policy changes so we can ski for the next 100 years."

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