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

When ski seasons are bad in the Sierra Nevada, they are generally worse in the San Bernardino Mountains.

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Longtime local skiers will tell you there was much more natural snow in the San Bernardino Mountains in the 1960s and '70s. That's what my dad said when I asked him.

Kenneth Coker will turn 80 in April. He started skiing the local mountains more than 60 years ago, and still skis once a week—conditions permitting—at Snow Valley outside Running Springs. He used to be a ski instructor there. Everybody in his ski group has noticed how the amount of natural snow on the slopes in recent years has diminished since decades past. Not everybody agrees why, however.

"We were just talking about this the other day," he said. "I definitely think it has something to do with global warming, but most of my buddies are real conservative. Some will say, 'What about 1,000 years ago? What about 2,000 years ago? 4,000 years ago?'"

Bill LaHaye, a conservation specialist with the Big Bear Lake Department of Water and Power, said he's seen no "hard evidence" of global warming trends effecting his town and, having "only lived here 20 years," is not sure that's a large enough sampling period from which to draw conclusions about something he's noticed: much warmer summer nights. But he has heard old timers around town tell of diminishing natural snowfall in the winter, too.

"My sister-in-law said that just last weekend," LaHaye said. "I can listen, but I have no real way to prove or disprove that. The problem is precipitation in Southern California is so variable. It makes it really hard to spot trends, which is something I have to do for work. Every decade we have an El Nio, so figuring out patterns in between is just really difficult."

Scientific evidence seems as problematic as anecdotal evidence when it comes to the local mountains.

'"Inconclusive' would be a good word," says Michael L. Goulden, associate professor of Earth System Science and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Irvine. "There is suspicion that something is going on."

Goulden is an expert at interpreting weather records, and though he's focused more on the San Jacinto Mountains in Riverside County, he suspects what's happening there is also happening in the San Bernardino range.

"Winters over the last 30 years are noticeably warmer," Goulden said. "More winter storms have higher snowlines, more rain and less snow. There are definitely changes. Definitely a lot of trees have died."

Which could be a symptom of global warming, since lack of water weakens trees that are then susceptible to pests like the bark beetle, right?

"The problem is, it could be three or four things," he said. "It could be global warming, or it could be regional weather changes that may or may not be part of global warming. It could be air pollution, which has had a cumulative effect. It could be past fire suppression, the way they've put out fires for the past 100 years. It could be that there are more trees than there should be, and when you have a drought it's like there are more mouths to feed.

"On the other hand, it could be an early sign of climate change. When scientists sit around, that's what we do, we say it could be that."

The problem with interpreting weather records is what may seem like long patterns of dryness to the novice are really just a blip when compared to the long life of the forest.

"Maybe in the 1600s, the exact same thing happened," Goulden says. "Maybe in the 1700s, the exact same thing happened. Sure, what's going on is unusual in a human's lifetime, but it might not be unusual."

But shouldn't folks who want to preserve life as they know it in Big Bear err on the side of caution?

"I think people are starting to look at it," Goulden says. "I think it could potentially be a huge deal. The big thing is the severity of fires. I think that's a particularly big deal for people living up there. That's something we're looking at progressively."

So is Jonathan Nourok, a 44-year-old former Long Beach resident who has been living in Big Bear since 2001 and for months has been trying without success to convince his new hometown to adopt the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement. He gets his next crack at Big Bear Lake's City Council on Feb. 26.

"Here's the reality: I have 10 minutes to cover this entire issue," Nourok says incredulously, "including trying to convince people who are in denial that the issue is even valid."

Kun, the Big Bear Mountain Resorts president, is among those Nourok believes is in denial. Once Nourok was "finally" able to make his global-warming pitch to Kun after several unsuccessful attempts, he says Kun told him he had no desire to take a stand on the issue. As they parted, Nourok says, Kun handed him materials from the Libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation and Cato Institute that are critical of the prevailing scientific views that global warming is real and man-made.

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