An Inconvenient Slope
It's shaping up as another warm winter day in the San Bernardino Mountains, but that's not what's bothering the people who run Big Bear Mountain Resorts. They've summoned reporters to a dining room in Little Bear Lodge at Snow Summit for a morning of hot coffee, cold eggs and corporate spiel—and the promise of a day of free skiing—to point out that 98 percent of their mountain is covered with man-made snow. All their skiing and snowboarding runs are open, despite the lack of natural white stuff falling this warm winter.
What? You didn't know that?
See, that's what's bothering the people at Big Bear Mountain Resorts. They're frustrated that these reporters—dutifully enduring a presentation of slides, speeches, handouts and interview opportunities while they eagerly wait to hit the slopes—have not been getting their message to the public. And they really don't want anybody straying from that message.
But as much as I love to ski, especially for free, and as impressed as I am by the technology that makes possible the laying of icy white carpet on otherwise brown and barren mountainsides, something about winters without much snowfall bothers me.
You'd think it would bother Richard Kun, too. The snowy-haired gent is president of Big Bear Mountain Resorts, and his lineage in these mountains goes back generations, to when his family founded its business during the Truman Administration. You can call him the Mogul of the Moguls . . . if you like that kind of humor, anyway.
But when I ask Kun whether he has followed natural snowfall trends over the years, and whether he may have noticed anything strange—anything that might tie the lack of natural snow in the San Bernardino Mountains to the issue of global climate change—he has a rather startling response.
"NO!" Kun responds, so quickly and sharply that I swear the windows rattle. Startling? You would have thought I was linking his interest in man-made snow to man-boy love. His dismissive tone indicates he will not be elaborating. Well, that and the long, uncomfortable silence hanging in the air.
My mouth agape and my eyes scanning the room for sympathy, I finally meet the gaze of Kun's marketing director, Chris Riddle, who shrugs and then offers his own, brief elaboration on the topic of no natural snow: "It's a Southern California thing."
Kun fixes his piercing eyes on the rest of the room, obviously ignoring my little corner of damnation.
"The time to be concerned with warmer winters has long since passed," he says, calmer now, but just as firm.
In retrospect, I really shouldn't have been surprised.
Five winters back at the same media event, I skied with—and fell down in front of . . . very embarrassing—Kun after a presentation in which he had trumpeted Snow Summit's 50th anniversary and acquisition of Bear Mountain, which for years had been a competing ski area known as Goldmine. The two resorts are very close to one another. Since the sorta-merger, a patron who purchases a lift ticket at either resort can ski both mountains; there are even free shuttle rides back and forth.
So while Kun and I were riding a chairlift, I asked him whether he had considered creating a ski run or trail between Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, like the narrow one that connects the California and Nevada sides of the Heavenly resort that towers over Lake Tahoe.
It was if I'd lit a fuse. Squinting my way, he launched into a colorful tirade against federal protections of the California spotted owl. No spotted owls had ever been seen at Snow Summit, Kun fumed, but because their nests have been found in the same San Bernardino National Forest that holds his lease, he's prevented from removing the necessary trees to carve out such a run.
"Environmentalists!" Kun muttered dismissively into his parka.
He went on to concede that even if Summit were permitted to chop down trees (and potential owl nests) it would be problematic to directly link with Bear Mountain because the areas are separated by a valley. Lifts would be needed to take skiers from the top of either mountain down to the flats, where they'd switch places for a ride back up to the other mountain.
The memory of that day, and the experience of this one, confirms that Kun is, above all, a pragmatic businessman. He's invested so much money into making snow to cover the runs at Big Bear Mountain Resorts that it's pretty much a waste of time for him to worry about where all the natural snow has gone.
* * *
In its most definitive report yet, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed on Feb. 2 that global warming is "unequivocal," will "continue for centuries" and there is at least a 90 percent chance it is caused by humans.
A lack of natural snowfall across the U.S. and Europe may be a symptom. Europe is enduring one of its warmest winters on record. Ski-related businesses are suffering from Austria to Spain. World Cup races in Chamonix, France, and Wengen, Switzerland, and elsewhere have been canceled due to lack of snow.
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.
When ski seasons are bad in the Sierra Nevada, they are generally worse in the San Bernardino Mountains.
* * *
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.
Kun isn't the only one around town pooh-poohing Nourok's campaign. Nourok recently addressed the Big Bear board of a county agency and "immediately after the meeting, one of the board members came up to me and said these reports of global warming were just made up by a bunch of liberal scientists, and they learn what they learn from liberal universities, and it's all just a liberal conspiracy that's all about liberals taking away people's money."
As chairman of the Big Bear Democratic Club's environmental committee, Nourok is quite used to the dreaded "L" word.
"This is an extremely conservative town," he said. "When you think of mountain communities, you think there must be a lot of tree huggers. But the words 'Sierra Club' are dirty words for the vast majority of people in Big Bear."
In a town of a bit more than 5,000 people, his Sierra Club meetings draw only 15 people.
"Everything is sort of backwards in Big Bear," Nourok says. "When you have a ski area owner out of sync with the rest of his own industry, it is so twisted. The majority here are Republicans brainwashed by the federal government. The White House isn't even as anti- the global warming issue as these people.
"I'm trying to save these people from themselves."
* * *
Big Bear Lake is an entirely snow-fed reservoir that, at optimal level, is about seven miles long (measuring from east to west), 2.5 miles wide at its widest measurement and generally about a mile wide everywhere else. Western settlers came upon a small reservoir when they were hunting Indians and, noticing the black bears frolicking in the waters, dubbed it "Bear Lake" and the surrounding area "Bear Valley." Orange growers dammed it up in 1884 to help irrigate their orange groves in the San Bernardino Valley below, creating what is now Big Bear Lake.
Townspeople—as part of the Big Bear Municipal Water District (MWD)—own the land under the lake, and the district manages the water level. But the water in the lake is actually owned by the private Redlands company Bear Valley Mutual Water, which spun out of the orange-growers association that built the dams. Bear Valley Mutual only supplies water for recreational uses, and through a longstanding deal, Big Bear Mountain Resorts gets a yearly allotment of water for snow making. Residents and businesses next to the lake must import water from somewhere else.
Big Bear Mountain Resorts maintain that if their full allotment was ever used, the lake level would only drop four inches. And half of the water the resort buys returns to the lake once the snow melts, according to the resort operators and MWD general manager Sheila Hamilton.
Four inches—or two if you give half of it back—does not seem like much now. But after years of recent, brutal droughts, the lake water level dropped as much as 17 feet. At its driest, the lake was surrounded by formerly lake-front homes propped up on stilts planted in the dirt, with huge swaths of land between them and the receded shoreline.
A big, wet winter three seasons ago brought the water level back up within two feet of normal. After two more dry years (and no relief in sight this winter), the lake level is now down about three feet.
"We anticipated it would be full by now, but the winter has not been kind," Hamilton said. "It's been cold, just not wet."
But she sees no global-warming trends locally.
"The lake seems to work in 10-year cycles, where you'll have five-year cycles where it's pretty consistent and then six years of drought," she said.
She is certain of one trend, however.
"Without the lake, there would be no snow making."
* * *
Kun predicts that Snow Summit—juiced by Big Bear Lake—will have enough man-made snow to remain open through April, even if no more natural snow falls in late winter. That must make owners of other Southern California ski areas envious. Without natural snowfall, Snow Valley and Mountain High near Wrightwood must make white stuff with limited supplies of imported water kept in on-site reservoirs.
"There were a host of ski areas in these mountains in the 1930s and '40s, and they eventually either evolved into resorts or they folded," Kun says. "The reason for our success is snow making. In the '50s, we were completely dependent on natural snowfall. If it didn't snow, we didn't open."
Snow Summit, which opened in 1952, pioneered snow making in 1963. Essentially, the right combination of water and compressed air is shot into the atmosphere at optimal temperatures to trick Mother Nature into making snow that drops on the bare slopes.
"Don't even talk to us about 'artificial snow,'" Kun warns. "It drives us crazy."
As signs on his chairlift poles advertise, "Man-made snow is real snow, only man made."
Steel pipes extend underground from the resort directly into Big Bear Lake. The water is stored in a million-gallon tank at the resort's base and 5- and 10-million gallon tanks in the mountains above. The resort can draw 5,000 gallons of water a minute, which compares to the three to five gallons of water per minute trickling out of your residential garden hose.
Three electric-generating plants on Kun's mountain supply the power needed for the snow-making guns, some of which look like jet engines on wheels and others that resemble large faucets pointed heavenward and connected to fire hoses. Summit uses a million gallons of diesel fuel a year to run those generators, and Kun says his resort could generate enough power to fulfill the needs of the city of Big Bear Lake—if only the infrastructure were present to make that possible (it isn't). Thanks to technological advances, Kun says, emissions from snow making have been reduced 85 percent.
"We're making more snow for less cost, less usage and less emissions," he says, while I wonder if he disgustedly mutters "environmentalists" at the folks who pushed for the regulations that necessitated the technological improvements that are now saving him money.
Huge fans blow white stuff out over large swaths of slope. In 48 hours, Summit's crews can completely cover the two longest runs—which extend from the top of the mountain down to the base area—in one to two feet of snow. And the latest guns have computer sensors attached that measure the amount of cold and water in the air and automatically calibrate themselves. The guns shoot out snow any time the conditions are ripe for it.
"The advances have been amazing," says Riddle, the marketing director. "It's better snow, the texture is better, it's more fun to ski on."
"It can get sloppy," Kun admits, "but so can snow from nature. You can't tell the difference between man-made or natural after it's been skied on."
* * *
Skiing's growing popularity created the need to carve more runs into the mountains, install more ski lifts and, beginning in the 1980s, create ramps, rails, mounds, half pipes and terrain parks for snowboarders. Covering the expanding acreage in sunny Southern California necessitated expanded snow making over the years.
It's been expensive.
Each of the big, jet-engine-looking contraptions costs $33,000. Summit has 33 of them. Bear Mountain has 45. "We need many more of them," says Kun, patting one of them lovingly. Then he sheepishly concedes the machines have not yet made enough snow to cover their initial investment.
During another casual moment, on a shuttle bus taking us back to Summit from Bear, Kun tells me global warming concerns are mostly being aired by other resorts, particularly in Colorado, because they have always counted on heavy natural snowfall and are not as advanced as Big Bear when it comes to snow making.
Neither is Summit's most-formidable competitor for Southern California skiers, Mammoth Mountain, which may explain why Lisa Isaacs, that resort's "environmental director," is quoted in the Schwarzenegger-commissioned report as saying snow making is no panacea for the industry. "The problem is that if you're not cold enough, you can't make snow," she said.
But Kun argues that while snow making used to be deemed impossible unless freezing temperatures were present, today's machines actually work best when it is slightly warmer than freezing and the air is dry. Those conditions allow the air to hold more snow.
"The recent dry, cold winds have been ideal for snow making," Kun says. "We made more in the last month than ever in our history."
What frustrates the folks at Big Bear Mountain Resorts is that, while they can count on endless streams of skiers and snowboarders during Christmas vacation, holidays and weekends, it can be like a ghost town on typical weekdays.
"Natural snow pops the market," said Brent Tregaskis, Bear Mountain's general manager. "People see snow on the mountain, and everyone comes up at once. This is one of our biggest frustrations. I don't think people know that snow is up here. There are thousands of people down there waiting for snow to fall. It's the toughest message to get out, that there is snow in Big Bear all winter long."
But doesn't that just prove that a lack of natural snowfall—the resorts' most proven marketing tool—is keeping away crowds, that global climate change may indeed be negatively effecting Big Bear Mountain Resorts' bottom line?
Listen to Nourok, the local environmental activist, who uses the same language as Tregaskis to argue global warming is hurting Big Bear, which is economically dependent on the ski resorts.
"The challenge for these ski areas is that more and more people look up in the mountains and they don't see snow. There is definitely a relationship between when natural snow falls, people see snow in the mountains and they come up. I snowboard five days a week and even though there is man-made snow on all the runs, during the week the place is empty."
If warming trends continue, Nourok believes this will become an Orange County issue as well.
"If there's an economic downturn in California caused by global warming, and that makes people struggle with their mortgages in Orange County, how long are they going to hold onto those second homes in Big Bear?"
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