Why Can’t Rich People Save Winter?

From the snow-dusted ridgelines of the Catskills to the rugged summits of the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevadas and Cascades, winter is slowly disappearing. And snow is receding with it.

We know humans are altering the climate. Temperatures in south-central Colorado have risen two degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1988. In California’s Lake Tahoe region, home to more than a dozen ski areas, warmer temperatures since 1970 have pushed the snow line uphill 1,200 to 1,500 feet. Winter season lengths are projected to decline at ski areas across the United States, in some locations by more than 50 percent by 2050 and by 80 percent by 2090 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, according to a 2017 study. Only about half of the 103 ski resorts in the Northeast will be able to maintain an economically viable ski season by midcentury, another study found in 2012.

In Europe, the cradle of ski culture, the problem is even worse. Half the glacial ice in the Alps has already melted; a study published two years ago in The Cryosphere, a journal of the European Geosciences Union, predicted 70 percent less snow in the mountains by the end of the century, threatening a $30 billion ski industry driven by more than 60 million tourists a year.

For the American ski industry, the impact has already been pronounced. Between 2001 and 2016, low-snow years cost the industry more than $1 billion and 17,400 jobs compared with an average season, according to a study commissioned by the nonprofit group Protect Our Winters.

I’ve been a skier for 45 years, and my passion for the sport has taken me to five continents. I’ve skied remote places, like the Cordillera Real in Bolivia, where a farmer at the base of a 16,000-foot peak I had just climbed and skied told me his village was relocating because the glacier no longer provided enough water. I’ve hiked and skied at New England resorts that have closed because of a lack of snow and money for snow-making. And I’ve visited dozens of resorts in the United States, Canada and Europe where the wealthy and not-so-wealthy gather — and where snowpacks are shrinking.

If any group was able to get political traction and defend winter in the United States, it stands to reason that it would be the winter sports community — a passionate population more than 24 million people strong that includes some of the nation’s most affluent and influential citizens. Of the 14.7 million skiers in this country, 67 percent attended college and more than half earn more than $75,000 a year. In Aspen and its surrounding environs, nearly 50 billionaires have homes.


Outside the Little Nell hotel at the foot of Aspen Mountain in 2015.CreditMorgan Rachel Levy for The New York Times

With the outlook for winter so dim, it is surprising, shocking even, that the ski industry and the alpine 1 percent it serves have not led the charge to slow climate change — if not to keep the climate safe for their progeny, then at least to save the snow outside their resorts and chalets. Instead, they have largely kept silent or, at most, pursued anemic, low-impact “sustainability” and “awareness” campaigns that give the appearance of advocacy but have done little to accomplish what the winter sports world, and the world at large, needs: rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

So with experts urging fast action to avoid serious consequences from climate change, where is the snow lobby?

“Many ski resort executives at large resorts are focused on yearly earnings; small resorts are simply focused on staying in business,” said Mario Molina, the executive director of Protect Our Winters. “This focus on earnings and the resulting aversion to entering politics has led to stasis. With exceptions, most of the industry and trade groups are increasingly paying lip service, but are still unwilling to make it a top priority when engaging law- and policymakers.”

Protect Our Winters, founded by the professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones in 2007, is one of the few organizations fighting for snow on Capitol Hill. Using the reach of its ski industry partners and more than 60 high-profile professional athletes, the group has been lobbying Congress and the White House for laws to slow climate change.

In 2018, Protect Our Winters created a separate action fund that focused on midterm elections in Colorado, Montana, Nevada and California’s Fourth Congressional District, offering climate-change education, get-out-the-vote programs and support for climate-friendly candidates. As for P.O.W. itself, so far the group has managed to rally support to its cause from only 20 ski resorts and more than a dozen corporate sponsors willing to contribute at least $25,000 each, though dozens more give more than $5,000.

Recalcitrance to engage in hard-hitting advocacy, unfortunately, is common in the ski industry. The National Ski Areas Association deserves credit for planting the seeds of sustainability and awareness among skiers as far back as 2000. But its subsequent efforts, like programs to encourage the purchase of carbon credits to offset emissions and signing open letters urging elected officials to support the Paris climate accord and President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, do more to make them look environmentally responsible than to reduce emissions.

“We take a highroad, proactive approach and not a divisive approach when we work with members of Congress, and we’re going to continue to do that,” said Geraldine Link, the association’s director of public policy. “We don’t use ‘doom and gloom’ or ‘sky is falling’ messaging.”

Ski resorts have no problem pushing for policies to help them adapt to warmer winters, throwing their weight behind legislation to protect water rights (for snow-making) and to keep a portion of ski area permit fees to remain in the national forest where the resorts operate. They’ve also developed warm-weather resort activities like mountain biking, zip lines, ropes courses, mountain coasters and music festivals.

“The counterargument we often get as to why there has not been meaningful activism is that ‘the industry is thriving; we’re going to adapt; we’re more efficient making snow; we are diversifying our revenue stream,’” Mr. Molina said. “And to me that just sounds like multiple forms of denial that I’ve heard in other industries — where they say, ‘Yes, climate change is bad, but we’re going to be O.K.’ And the reality is that we’re not.”

Perhaps that attitude explains this: In federal and state elections over the last 10 years, many owners and executives at ski resorts, their political action committees and industry trade groups have contributed thousands of dollars to the campaigns of lawmakers who have stood in the way of important climate change legislation.

The National Ski Areas Association has argued, for instance, that it needs friends on both sides of the aisle in Washington, and that some of these lawmakers have supported important initiatives like year-round activities at ski resorts and protecting water rights. My point is: They shouldn’t be giving any money to lawmakers who oppose efforts to slow or stop climate change. The time for soft-pedaling passed decades ago. At this very late stage in the game, the snow sports world needs decisive action.

Consider the lawmakers pictured below. They represent districts that are home to a ski resort or resorts. You might think they would support legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow the planet’s warming and protect the snow that provides livelihoods for constituents. But, according to an analysis of their records over the course of their careers on measures directly related to climate change from the League of Conservation Voters, that’s rarely, if ever, how they vote.

Snow is about more than skiing, of course. It’s the world’s water tower, providing up to 50 percent of the planet’s fresh water supply and drinking water for two billion people. Up to 75 percent of the water used by farms and cities in the American West comes from snowmelt. Melt water in the Colorado River alone feeds seven states and 40 million people and provides roughly a third of all the water for Southern California’s cities.

Low snowfall can also be the first domino in a long line of natural catastrophes downstream — like the infestation of mountain pine beetles in water-starved trees that has ravaged 23 million acres of forest in the West since 2000. In California, low snowpack has been directly tied to the rise in wildfires.

At least some of the wonder around snow and skiing comes from the raw natural forces that cause water vapor to freeze around a dust particle in a cloud and form a simple hydrogen-bonded crystal, a prism with six sides. Now, at some resorts, some of this same raw power — sun, wind, water — is spinning lifts, making snow and carrying skiers high into the hills. Climate advocates see this as a sign that the industry is becoming more engaged in the climate fight.

Because ski resorts require a tremendous amount of electricity to power snow-making, lifts and resort operations, they are influential customers of state and local utilities. And they can help determine how the electricity they buy is generated.

Aspen Skiing Company spent 15 years working to move its local utility, Holy Cross Energy, to renewables. Other ski resorts are starting to prod utilities in the same direction. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows in California recently announced a partnership with Liberty Utilities to transition the resort’s power to 100 percent renewable energy. More than a dozen large ski resorts and communities have become or committed to going 100 percent renewable in recent years, while smaller resorts like Berkshire East in Massachusetts and Mount Abram in Maine create renewable electricity on-site with wind and solar power.

This kind of rapid transition is exactly what climate scientists say we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change — and assure we will continue to have snow in our mountains. Because utilities operate mostly at a regional or local level, says Jon Goldin-Dubois, the president of Western Resource Advocates, a conservation advocacy group, it is possible to reshape the power grid from the ground up.

An outdoor sports lobby could be important in making that happen. “It’s broad-based, it cuts across sectors, cuts across a variety of different interests — Democrats, independents, Republicans,” he said. “It’s a tremendously powerful opportunity to engage.”

Just such a partnership took shape a few days ago at the annual Outdoor Retailer snow show in Denver when the two major ski and snow sport industry groups, the ski areas association and Snowsports Industries America, joined with the Outdoor Industry Association to announce the “Outdoor Business Climate Partnership.” The group has already planned a spring trip to Washington to push for climate change solutions.

The outdoor recreation industry is responsible for $887 billion in annual consumer spending that supports 7.6 million jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. That gives it muscle, which the group has been willing to flex. It pushed to move the industry’s trade show, and the $45 million in spending it generates, from Salt Lake City to Denver to protest support by prominent Utah politicians for the Trump administration’s shrinking of several national monuments in the state.

This new coalition, said Nick Sargent, the Snowsports Industries president, reflects changes at the top of those three organizations. “What we’re hearing now from some of our members is: ‘What can we do? How quickly can we get this up and running?’” he said.

The real power of the coalition, said Amy Roberts, the executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association, comes from consumers. Last year, 150 million Americans participated in outdoor recreation.

“When I talk with somebody about the outdoors, they don’t say, ‘I go skiing’ or ‘I go climbing’ or ‘I like to run marathons,’” she said. “They all say, ‘I’m a skier; I’m a climber; I’m a runner.’ It’s identity versus something that they do. And so people are willing to go the extra mile to come to Washington, to write the letter, to get engaged, because it’s part of who they are as a person versus what they do.”

Auden Schendler, the vice president for sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, has been a leading voice in the fight to save snow for two decades. He and a team pioneered projects like Aspen’s methane-powered electricity plant, which burns methane that had been escaping from a nearby coal mine and sells the power — enough to run the resort — to the local utility. The green business practices he helped lead at Aspen are now taught at the Harvard Business School and others.

A power plant burns methane from the Elk Creek mine in Somerset, Colo.CreditJeremy Swanson

Mr. Schendler sits on the Protect Our Winters board. To make progress against climate change, he said, the ski industry and its trade groups need to make climate the No. 1 priority, publicly withdraw support from elected officials who deny climate science, use their marketing power to promote climate action and weigh in at the federal level with direct action, like working to elect candidates.

“Skiing happens to be prominent in red or purple energy states and in key swing states where the climate movement needs traction,” he said. “In Montana, P.O.W. specifically mobilized fishers, climbers, skiers and hikers to vote for” Jon Tester, the incumbent Democratic senator, who was re-elected in November. The outdoor community, he said, “is starting to become the N.R.A. of the climate movement, wielding power from a passionate base.”

So now the question is whether the ski and winter sport industry will back up its talk with action. And by that, I mean making a priority of political advocacy directed at electing lawmakers committed to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten the snowy peaks their enterprises depend on.

Mr. Sargent, the Snowsports Industries president, said the game is on. “We made a decision that we are going to work toward reducing the carbon footprint and preserving winter for the next generation, so that is what we are going to do and that’s our commitment,” he said. “It’s time to do it. Better late than never.”

Porter Fox is the author, most recently, of “Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border.”

Graphics by Ash Ngu and Jessia Ma

Please help keep this Site Going