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Dual-front climate risk threatens resorts' livelihoods

Dec 21, 2022
Illustration of a person on skis jumping over mountains made of fire

Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

The winter outdoor recreation industry is grappling with how to adapt to a changing climate and mitigate its impact on the climate.

Why it matters: Key economic drivers for counties and towns, ski resorts face constant threats of low snow winters and wildfires in summers.

Threat level: Roughly 75% of ski resorts had invested in sustainability initiatives as of 2018, per an economic report from Protect Our Winters, as the effects of climate change have become hard to ignore.

  • Alterra addressed low-hanging fruit such as switching out lightbulbs while looking at longer-term solutions like on-site renewable energy generation, says Alterra's VP of sustainability, Darcie Renn.
  • Vail Resorts invested in the 230MW Nebraska-based Plum Creek Wind project, its head of sustainability, Kate Wilson, says.

Zoom in: Mountain town residents, resort employees and advocacy groups don't think resorts are doing enough with their economic and political capital.

  • "The resorts are big customers for the power companies and they do have an ability to say, 'Hey, we want clean energy and will write big checks for that,'" Protect Our Winters founder and professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones says. "These resorts don't use any of their power, and that's been really frustrating."
  • Housing affordability in mountain towns has been scrutinized as many resort employees are pushed further away from their workplaces and forced to commute longer distances, generating more Scope 3 emissions, Rocky Mountain Institute's Rushad Nanavatty says.

What's happening: Ski resorts have added summer recreation and events businesses to help offset the unpredictability of winter revenue lines. However, summer recreation is increasingly at risk due to drought and wildfires.

  • Low snow years are associated with a decrease of nearly $1 billion in added value compared to average snow years, the 2018 POW economic report found. Summer recreation is one way to make up for that, the report states.
  • "The time to talk was yesterday," Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski, one of the report's authors, says in an interview.

The bottom line: "I hope that most skiers can take the next step and look beyond their life to those that are not economically privileged to ski and are shouldering the impacts of climate change with the fewest resources to address it. It's a much bigger problem than skiing," Burakowski says.

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