Two environmental groups released a report Thursday that shows climate change will likely devastate the ski industry in coming decades if no action is taken.
The release of the report triggered a sharp exchange between an Aspen Skiing Co. executive and a national ski trade group over how the industry has responded to the threat of global warming. Auden Schendler, Skico vice president of sustainability, criticized the ski industry's track record on dealing with climate change. "The response has been defensive, for the most part," he said.
Schendler called on industry officials to "get off their [rears]" and treat climate change like an existential threat."
National Ski Areas Association, a national ski industry trade group based in Lakewood, countered with a press release touting ski areas' steps to reduce their greenhouse emissions and the industry's initiatives to build awareness about climate change.
"The ski industry took a leadership role on this issue over a decade ago, and we continue to advance that mission," said Michael Berry, president of the national association, in a statement.
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Protect Our Winters (POW) commissioned the study by Elizabeth Burakowski and Matthew Magnusson, researchers at the University of New Hampshire. Their analysis indicated that winter tourism raked in $1 billion less in the two lowest snow years in the last decade compared to the two highest snow years over that same period. The winter tourism industry, which includes snowmobiling in addition to alpine skiing, brings in $12.2 billion annually in 38 states.
In Colorado, ski resort revenues dropped $154 million in low-snow years compared to high snow years, the study said. Skier visits - the industry measurement for how many people hit the slopes - dropped by 8 percent in the leanest snow years. About 1,867 jobs in winter tourism are lost when snowfall is poor.
NRDC and POW commissioned the study because they found in past lobbying efforts that members of Congress want hard data on how climate change would effect the winter tourism economy, according to Chris Steinkamp, executive director of POW.
Burakowski said "snow is currency" for the winter tourism industry. A decrease in snow undermines the industry and the economies of the 38 states where skiing and snowmobiling is a primary activity.
Scientists contend that temperatures could increase between 4 and 10 degrees by the end of the century, Burakowski noted. The snowpack is expected to decline 25 to 100 percent, depending on elevation and latitude, she said.
Colorado has some of the highest elevation ski areas, so it's likely they will be able to operate for the next couple of decades as the snow line marches up, Burakowski said. The changes won't be overnight, but climate change models show a bleak future for snow even at high elevations. More precipitation is expected to fall as rain.
The environmental organizations plan to get the study in the hands of members of Congress. Schendler said he's not ready to write off the ski industry's future.
"I think it's important to say the demise of the ski industry isn't imminent at all," he said.
He believes ski trade groups such as National Ski Areas Association should feature experts on climate change at its annual meetings. Executives of ski resorts should be educated on the science of climate change so they can see clearly that changes must be made, he said.
Once the education takes place, he would like to see ski industry leaders make strong public statements about national policy on reducing greenhouse gases. Leaders should also "go to Washington, D.C. with a large coalition and hammer on it," he said.
Schendler said he was surprised by National Ski Areas Association's press release Thursday, on the day the climate change impact report came out. In his view, it demonstrated the ski industry's unwillingness to look at climate change seriously.
The press release stressed that ski resort operators are aware of climate change but optimistic for the future. Ski areas enjoyed their best 10-year average on record over the last decade. "In each season the 10-year average for visits has been on the upswing, and revenues have steadily increased as well," the association's press release said.