The Dirty Secret of the Ski Industry

COLORADO SPRINGS–As the first snows of winter blanket Colorado and launch ski season, ski industry leaders are facing a difficult challenge: a finite number of years left for people to get out and ski powder.

The industry draws 56.5 million people, who spend $8.4 billion a year, to ski resorts around the United States, according to the National Ski Areas Association. If you’re one of those skiers or somebody who relies on that spending for your livelihood, you could soon be feeling some pain.

“The big secret that you should be aware of is that the idea that we’re going to save the ski industry, or stop climate change in a way that will protect skiing, is false,” said Auden Schendler, Aspen Ski Company’s vice president of sustainability, who has lead industry efforts to face climate change.

Schendler has reached his conclusions through years of experience implementing environmentalism in business. The latest science largely backs up his views.   

A 2017 University of Colorado Boulder study anticipates that climate change will shorten the ski season at resorts nationwide by 50 percent before 2050 and by 80 percent before 2090. The researchers said downhill ski industry revenue could shrink by $2 billion a year unless measures can be put in place to stop global warming.

To limit global warming to 2.7o F above pre-industrial levels by 2040 would require “rapid and far-reaching” changes in industry and politics, the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its latest analysis.

“That level of warming basically dooms skiing,” Schendler said in a recent interview. “The industry hasn’t come to terms with that.”

Longtime skiers are horrified hearing this forecast.  

“It’s been such a huge part of my life,” Colorado College student Colin Suszynski said. For skiing to disappear “would be devastating,” Suszynski said.

“Skiing brings me a lot of happiness,” Olympic slopestyle skiing medalist Isabel Atkin said. “If it was taken away, it would be awful.”

Atkin contends the time has come for skiers to get more involved in climate advocacy.

Aspen Ski Co. plans to rally those efforts.

“We are the obvious people to be the vanguard of the movement,” said Schendler.

Schendler, along with Aspen Ski Co., has been advocating for changes in the ski industry.

“Nobody is doing what we’re doing,” Schendler said.

But some industry officials are still skeptical.

“There’s a lot of science out there, but to say whether the ski industry is going to be here or not, it’s impossible to forecast that,” National Ski Areas Association president Kelly Pawlak said.

“I don’t know if the science is there for us to really understand whether we’re going to have a shortened period of skiing or if it’s going to be gone altogether,” Pawlak said. “NSAA is definitely not in a position to make any statements about that far in the future.”  

NSAA encourages its members to “be green” and use energy efficiently as part of programs such as the Climate Challenge and Sustainable Slopes. The Climate Challenge is “dedicated to helping ski areas reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reap other benefits, such as reducing energy use.”

In Aspen, Schendler says ski industry trade groups aren’t doing enough. Schendler said changing individual company practices to be green “totally misses the point.”

“Here are the little rinky-dink things that we are doing so people don’t criticize us,” he said.

The industry claims that they are making efforts to be green by using energy efficiently and offsetting carbon. Political activism, however, remains a step that many ski resorts still haven’t committed to though.

“Organizations like Vail have said, we care about climate change and we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint, well that has nothing to do with stopping climate change because the problem is a global scale problem,” Schendler said.

Aspen says that they are attempting to move beyond these superficial efforts to address climate change.

Instead, Aspen Ski Co. is getting involved in wider efforts to address climate change. Aspen Ski Co. involved themselves in the Holy Cross Utility board elections and over the course of a decade slowly changed who was on the board. Holy Cross recently said that they are going to 70%  renewable electricity. Aspen Ski Co. has advocated for state renewable energy standards, including supporting rules to regulate methane, as well.

“We are trying to use the outdoor industry like the NRA but on climate and own that policy world,” Schendler said.

Aspen officials acknowledge complexities and ironies, like the thousands of people who fly into Aspen Airport and Denver International Airport every holiday weekend relying on fossil fuels that load up the atmosphere with more heat-trapping gas.

“You could quite easily say we are the source of the problem. We are part of a capitalist system that doesn’t put a price on externalities,” said Schendler. “The fix can’t be us. It has to be systemic.”

Aspen’s officials contend part of the problem is that only bad corporations are influencing policy. They hope to change that.

“It’s only the fossil industry owning politics,” Schendler said.

He acknowledges that the ski industry needs to keep making profits. But he wants companies and ski trade groups to understand that they also need to play a role in global systematic change as well as changes in their own practices.

Even if all this is done, it might not be enough to stop climate change from hurting skiing.

“The dirty secret,” said Schendler, “is that we’re not going to save it.”

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