An Inconvenient Slope

Big Bears ski resorts are covered in snow despite a chronic lack of natural snowfall. So where are the crowds? Dont blame global warmingblame the media

Canadian resort communities normally digging themselves out of white stuff are also noticing the changes. The local paper at Whistler mountain in British Columbia editorialized that the long-term economy may now have to shift its focus from winter to summer activities.

The United States has a $4.5 billion ski industry, but as it became apparent that warmer skies and less snow would make this season a challenging one for resort operators across the country, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) essentially changed the agenda of its Eastern Winter Conference and Trade Show at Vermont's Mount Snow Resort. Instead of concentrating on innovative ways to make more money, it's searching for ways to change, or at least deal with, the weather. Topics for discussion included debt management, workforce retention, maintaining positive media perceptions and keeping guests and season ticket holders happy amid crappy conditions.

In Park City, Utah, which played host to alpine events during the 2002 Winter Olympics, people drive around with license plates that read "The Greatest Snow on Earth" and oldtimers in the former mining town are fond of saying "When the silver mines closed, we discovered white gold." But the POWDR Corporation, which operates the ski resort, recently commissioned a study on the local impacts of climate change. The results didn't prompt any peppy slogans.

University of Colorado scientists, relying on seven different projections formulated by a United Nations team of experts, reported that temperatures are expected to rise 6 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century and that the winter sports industry faces dire consequences unless energy consumption is curbed. Rather than selling the resorts he owns in Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California, POWDR CEO John Cummings decided to become a leader in the fight against global warming.

Other resorts are with him. More than 50 of them in 14 states are buying renewable energy credits to offset part or all of their operational use. In addition, the NSAA, the National Ski Patrol, the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors are offsetting 100 percent of their energy use. The NSAA, which launched its Sustainable Slopes program in 2000 to encourage resorts to become more green-friendly, recently partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council for a new anti-global warming strategy called Keep Winter Cool.

But being a good environmental steward has proven difficult for some. Kirkwood Mountain Resort near Lake Tahoe is a proud signer of the national environmental charter for ski areas, but it also holds the dubious distinction of being the only California resort to receive an F grade on a report card by an environmental coalition that rated western ski areas. And the Boulder, Colo.-based Ski Area Citizens' Coalition claims that many resorts buying 100 percent "green energy" are their towns' worst offenders when it comes to protecting the local environment in other ways, including clearing out old-growth forests.

Ironically, Big Bear Mountain Resorts was an early signee to Sustainable Slopes and the company generally receives high marks for environmental stewardship at Snow Summit and Sierra Summit. But Kun's disdain for eco-activists is legendary. As part of the resort's expansion plans in the early 1990s, Summit was required by the Forest Service to help fund a study of habitats for the California spotted owl and San Bernardino flying squirrel. Those studies have since been used to protect the creatures and prevent the ski areas from expanding, prompting Kun to tell the Los Angeles Times in December 1993: "The general environmental movement has exaggerated dangers on every front. Environmental rules and regulations are a danger to our way of life and are unnecessary. Much of [the environmental movement] is hysterical, distorted, phony and anti-human being."

Ski resorts have historically found themselves at odds with their surrounding town's environmentalists, so you won't find a more dramatic example of the exact opposite phenomena than this: in December, the Aspen Ski Co. joined the lawsuit being heard by the the U.S. Supreme Court which seeks to force the Environmental Protection Agency to stem the emission of greenhouse gases many scientists link to climate change. Aspen argues in the suit—which was originally filed by Massachusetts and 11 other states and joined by three cities and 13 environmental groups—that the EPA's lack of response to global warming is negatively affecting their bottom line.

Meanwhile, studies of future weather trends show bad times ahead for California ski operators. A report last year by the New York-based nonprofit Environmental Defense titled "Global Warming and the Golden State: A Call to Action" includes this line about sustained climate change: "There will be a shorter snow season because snowfall will start later and snow will melt earlier." It's even more dire if you operate a resort in the relatively lower-elevation San Bernardino Mountains: "If greenhouse gas pollution continues at its current rate, California's ski industry will face increasingly shorter seasons—and could disappear entirely at lower elevations."

Those findings echoed "Our Changing Climate: Assessing the Risks to California," a California Environmental Protection Agency report commissioned in 2005 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that—among several other nasty conclusions—forecasts widespread implications for winter tourism if temperatures continue to rise. Declines in the Sierra Nevada snowpack could cause the ski season to shorten by as much as a month at resorts in the lower and middle elevations, and there could be many years with insufficient snow for any skiing and snowboarding at all.

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