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Uphill Battle

What does a changing climate mean for \nMontana’s ski industry?

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It’s Christmas Eve, 2050, and the slopes of Montana’s ski areas are abuzz. Temperatures finally dropped enough in the last few days to render cloud seeding and snowmaking efforts more than just costly exercises in futility, and an unaccustomed snowstorm even rolled in overnight, leaving behind a prized layer of natural powder. That means the tourists—most of whom used to spend their winter vacations in Colorado and Utah before migrating north to maximize the odds of realizing their powdery dreams—will take a break today from the golf courses, water slides and manmade ice rinks at the base of the hill. The mountain’s lower reaches aren’t worth skiing these days, but new gondolas installed after the base villages became stranded from their runs cart people up, up and away to where the air is still crisp. At the end of the day, thirsty skiers will sit on the deck in shorts, sipping margaritas and watching crews pull insulated tarps over swaths of melting snow. Montana’s ski areas, many of which have long been recast as more flexible “winter resorts” and lean on more reliable forms of recreation to subsidize the skiing, might yet live up to their traditional raison d’etre this year. It’s poised to be a good season.

The Green Trail
Amid all the talk of climate change and what it portends for the world, it’s the dramatic visions—Submerged coastal cities? Unstoppable forest fires? Polar bears in Hawaiian print shirts?—that tend to get the most ink. And Montana, which is happily located far from the rising tides and blessed with more cows than people, doesn’t appear to be a promising testing ground for most of the theories (wildfires aside) that imagine climate change’s imminent impacts.

Montana’s ski industry, which represents both a symbolic image of and a real segment within the state’s burgeoning tourist economy, is one notable exception. No one knows what Montana’s ski industry will look like on Christmas Eve, 2050. But the owners, investors and operators of the state’s 17 ski areas—whose economic impact is difficult to tally, since no entity tracks statewide ski industry impacts beyond the number of annual skier visits—are beginning to think more seriously about what climate change may mean, and how they might adapt in its face. There’s good reason why.

The American ski industry as a whole seems to be following—albeit at a safe distance—the lead of the European ski industry, where the panic is already on because most European ski areas sit at lower elevations. In 2005, Switzerland’s Andermatt ski resort wrapped its resident glacier in an insulating blanket during the summer months to try to keep it from melting away. A 2004 United Nations report warned that retreating snowlines threaten to cut off the base villages of many European resorts from their ski runs by 2030, and many are already building new lifts with that in mind. Closer to home, the 2006 Colorado College State of the Rockies Report Card, which evaluated snowpack data in the Rocky Mountains from 1960 onward and projected climate-warming trends to 2085, found that spring snowpack has already dropped dramatically in recent decades. It projects further drops by 2085, including an 80-percent drop in New Mexico’s and Utah’s snowpack, a 50-percent loss in Colorado’s and a 34-percent drop in Montana’s.

Steve Running, a climate scientist and director of the University of Montana’s Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group, chuckles—you decide whether it’s ominous or gleeful—when asked about the future of the state’s ski industry. He says his analysis of 40 years of snowfall data gathered from the Missoula airport reveals that annual average snowfall has dropped about 20 inches—from 60 to 40—over the last four decades.

“Within 40 or 50 years, if we continue on this trend, it will hardly snow in Missoula at all,” he says.

However, Running says, Montana will be better positioned than many other places because we’re starting off higher in elevation and lower in temperature than many of our brethren to the west, east and south. While the snow trend is headed downhill, Montana may yet benefit from global warming, if only because we’re colder to start with.

The Double Track
As a whole, the ski industry’s reaction to climate change is two-pronged: It is taking steps to attempt to prevent further warming while finding ways to cope if those efforts aren’t successful.

Toward the first goal, the ski industry is taking a number of steps to reduce both the amount of energy it consumes and its carbon emissions, since the release of vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuels, is one of the leading contributors to the greenhouse gasses partly responsible for warming up the globe.

Running and representatives of the ski industry both recognize the obvious: Excessive carbon emissions and resulting global warming isn’t a problem that one ski area, or one industry, or one region, can solve. It’s going to take concentrated, widespread efforts—and soon—at the federal and global level to begin slowing a hastening trend. Still, just as each person plays a role through their personal habits and choices, so do the efforts of each ski area.

The national trailblazer in the greening of the ski industry is Aspen Skiing Company, which operates four ski mountains in Colorado, generates more than $2 billion in revenues annually and draws more than 10 million skier visits each year. It holds a number of green records in the industry: in June 2006, it made the industry’s largest purchase of renewable energy certificates from wind farms to offset 100 percent of its electricity use; it boasts the industry’s largest solar photovoltaic system as well as a micro-hydroelectric plant, both of which serve as power sources for resorts; it developed the industry’s first green construction guidelines and built one of the world’s first buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Program (LEED); it is the first and only ski resort to join the Chicago Climate Exchange, a legally binding program that mandates annual reductions in carbon dioxide emissions; in 2004, it became the nation’s first ski resort to fuel all of its snowcats with B20 biodiesel; in fall 2006, it launched the industry’s first climate change education campaign.

Additionally, in September 2006 it was the only ski resort to file an amicus curiae brief in support of the 12 states that sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force it to regulate carbon emissions as a pollutant. In its filing, Aspen Skiing Company urged the court to recognize the massive impact that unregulated carbon emissions and subsequent climate change is having—and will increasingly have—on both the company’s and Colorado’s economy. Aspen’s CEO said mid-season melting and a shortened operational period would only need to carve off a few dozen days from the average ski season before rendering the resort unprofitable and causing “an economic disaster.” Aspen estimates that if even a week is shorn off the ski season by 2030, the economic consequences could range from $16 million to $56 million in lost revenue.

Aspen—with its literal and figurative mountains of resources—may be taking the largest strides to respond to climate change because it stands to lose the most. But the smaller steps being taken by many other ski areas around the nation can’t be overlooked. A total of 19 ski resorts nationwide now offset 100 percent of their electricity usage with the purchase of renewable power credits, and 28 more purchase some amount of renewable energy. In Massachusetts, Jiminy Peak is currently preparing to install the nation’s first onsite wind turbine at a ski area and estimates that it will take only eight years for the turbine to pay for itself, given the increasing costs of traditional energy. More than a dozen ski areas have teamed up with the Bonneville Environment Foundation to offer green-minded customers standing at the lift ticket window the chance to buy optional “Mini-Green Tags” that represent 100 kilowatt hours of wind power and offset the carbon dioxide emissions skiers create by driving about 150 miles. In 2005, more than 70 resorts nationwide signed a letter supporting climate-change legislation proposed by Sens. John McCain and Joe Liebermann (though it was ultimately unsuccessful). And more than 180 resorts—including nine in Montana—have endorsed the environmental charter and Sustainable Slopes program piloted by the National Ski Areas Association in 2000, which helps resorts assess their energy consumption and find ways to reduce it.

Given that the ski industry’s conservation efforts alone can’t substantially cut the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, many ski areas are also searching for ways to cope with climate change’s impacts. Toward that end, they’re moving to diversify their offerings so they aren’t so utterly dependant on the fluctuating fortunes of natural snowpack. There’s also a technological push afoot to create new and better ways to manufacture and maintain snow so that ski areas can satisfy the expectations of customers long accustomed to snowpacks that may not be there in the future.

Here’s a look at what a few of the Montana ski areas best known to Independent readers—one smaller, one larger, and one just preparing to launch—are doing to conserve, diversify and compensate as they gaze toward their futures, and coming climate change, and plan how to negotiate the rapidly approaching intersection.

Conservation
While some of the nation’s ski resorts have tackled energy conservation at the comprehensive level of purchasing renewable energy, primarily through wind power credits, that day has yet to come in Montana. Instead, here you’ll find a multitude of much smaller energy-trimming efforts, especially at smaller resorts like Montana Snowbowl. In recent years, owner Brad Morris says, Snowbowl has consciously worked to become more energy efficient and hopes to continue expanding those efforts. The resort that’s operated on Forest Service land just north of Missoula since 1961 now uses energy-efficient light bulbs and reusable dining ware instead of disposable dishes at the lodge. Earlier this year, Morris says, he installed a new drive that runs the ski lift much more efficiently and regenerates energy when the lift slows down (much like a hybrid car). He would also like to pump biofuel into the area’s snow equipment instead of straight diesel, but says he won’t make the switch until biodiesel is more readily available. A member of Sustainable Slopes, which helps ski areas assess their energy consumption and learn about conservation techniques employed by other resorts, Snowbowl plans to keep improving its energy efficiency.

While Morris says he admires projects that other larger resorts have recently taken on, like onsite wind turbines or renewable energy credits, he doesn’t see them appearing at Snowbowl any time soon.

“I’m all for that approach, but I think for a small business like ours, we’re much better off buying a new lift drive or something that our skiers would have a direct benefit from,” he says.

Tucked away near Whitefish, one of Montana’s largest ski resorts, Big Mountain, has undertaken conservation efforts similar to Snowbowl’s, but on a slightly larger scale. Big Mountain spokesman Brian Schott says the resort spends $150,000 a year to run a free shuttle bus from Whitefish to the slopes, minimizing the number of vehicles on the road. The resort also employs a recycling program, uses motion-activated lighting and energy-efficient construction, Schott says, and has its eye on upgrading to biofuel for its vehicles.

“From our standpoint, there’s no doubt that we need to do everything we can to be as green a resort as possible,” Schott says.

That said, it’s clear from looking at their development plans that both Snowbowl and Big Mountain are focused more on expanding and diversifying their resorts than just improving efficiency.

Diversification
These days, the ski industry is about much more than skiing. One person who’s seen the transformation sweep through the industry, if not necessarily to all of Montana’s smaller ski areas, is Jim Gill, chief executive officer for Bitterroot Resort. Gill was hired by rancher Tom Maclay to execute his dream of turning the 3,000-acre Maclay ranch in the shadow of Lolo Peak into a large-scale, all-season resort complete with 2,200 housing units and three golf courses. Maclay has already carved 31 lower-altitude ski runs on his property, but he’s also seeking to gain access to about 12,000 acres of public land on Carlton Ridge and Lolo Peak. The Forest Service is working to craft a new forestwide plan that will dictate land-use management, though preceding plans have precluded developed recreation in the Lolo Peak area, and the agency doesn’t appear poised to change that designation.

Gill began his career as a ski patrol at Colorado’s Breckenridge resort in the early ’70s and worked his way up to general manager by the time he moved on to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, where he was also general manager.

“When I first started in the industry, it was all about skiing,” Gill says. “We served terrible food and our parking lots were a mess, but if you had good skiing that’s all people talked about.”

Gill says that’s gradually changed through the years in response to competition from cruise lines, amusement parks and warm-weather resorts that put much more emphasis on a wide range of amenities.

“While we talk about snow quality and fast lifts and whatnot, what really makes for a choice of a destination now is shopping, food, hiking and things that you don’t normally think about,” Gill says.

In coming decades, broadening the options available at ski resorts won’t just be a matter of keeping up with the rest of the vacation industry; it will also require a strategy for dealing with climate change.

Big Mountain’s Schott says his resort’s summer business, which now constitutes about one-fifth of the Big’s operations will have “increasing importance” in years to come.

The resort already brings in about 50,000 summer visitors a year who ride horses and mountain bikes, go hiking, take guided walks on a treetop boardwalk about 70 feet off the ground and attend concerts. Schott expects the summer business to grow as the resort learns how to better draw in the crowds visiting nearby Glacier National Park. That goal is part of the resort’s new master plan, which the town of Whitefish approved in May 2006, and reflects a full-blown expansion mode for the resort that’s privately held by Winter Sports Incorporated and generates annual skier visits in the mid-200,000 range—with the exception of last year’s season, which turned out a record 304,366 visitors. Other aspects of the master plan look to diversify Big Mountain’s winter offerings: this winter the terrain park designed to appeal to snowboarders will be roughly doubled in size, and a new $10 million day lodge will partially open for the holidays. A rebuilding of the area’s high-speed quad lift is also scheduled within the next few years, Schott says.

Snowbowl is also looking to grow both its summer and winter businesses. Morris recently proposed an expansion that would nearly double the terrain over a decade of phases. Missoula’s favorite ski hill would swell from 1,088 acres to 2,226 acres, increasing skier capacity from about 1,400 to nearly 2,400 at any given time.

Durnig the summer season, Snowbowl already offers chairlift rides, mountain biking trails and a mountaintop folf course that have been improved in recent years, and Morris says, all those amenities are slated for more growth. Special events like weddings are the largest component of Snowbowl’s summer business, Morris says, which still accounts for less than 10 percent of Snowbowl’s overall operations.

Bitterroot Resort, with its plans for extensive real estate development, three golf courses, two ice rinks and a village complete with four-star dining and spa retreats, perhaps best exemplifies today’s drive to create resorts that don’t put all their eggs in one snow-padded basket. While areas like Snowbowl and Big Mountain work to retrofit themselves to gain advantage in the years to come, resorts like Bitterroot are building diversity into their DNA, and aspects like real estate are arguably more important to the resort than skiing itself.

Gill says the real estate resource and an emphasis on golfing will allow Bitterroot to equip itself with new, expensive technology that will, in turn, ensure skiing’s future at the resort.

“We can pay for it knowing full well that we’ve got the revenue stream from real estate to make it viable,” says Gill. “People will be able to ski well into the future here because we’ll have used real estate money wisely.”

Compensation
When Big Mountain started up in the late 1940s, and when Snowbowl opened in the early 1960s, global warming simply wasn’t a factor that had to be weighed. For new resorts like Bitterroot, climate change and technology that allows resorts to counteract global warming’s effects are both fundamental planning considerations.

Snowmaking is the main way resorts can make up for lost snowpack. At Big Mountain, Schott says, snowmaking has already expanded in recent years and will further expand in the future, but manmade snow there will never constitute more than just a “boost.”

“We count pretty much exclusively on natural snowfall,” Schott says, adding that manmade snow currently counts for only about 5 percent of Big Mountain’s total. That percentage may increase in the future, but don’t expect it to replace the real stuff.

“I’m sure we’ll continue to increase it a little, but in the big picture, we’re a mountain of great proportions and we need natural snowfall to make things work,” Schott says.

That much-needed snow from the sky may have been falling slightly later in the season over the last decade, he says, but snow depth totals have remained steady, and it’s difficult to know whether the later onset is a sign of permanent climate change or just an El Niño drought cycle.

For that reason, Schott says, Big Mountain is watching the science as well as the sky: “Our ears are certainly open to listening to the scientific data, but at this point all we can do is make sure we’re doing our part in the global warming issue and hedge our bets as much as we can by increasing snowmaking as necessary and diversifying our operation.”

Snowbowl’s Morris has much the same take. Snowmaking operations there will continue to expand along with the resort’s terrain, he says, but he doesn’t see the technology playing a greater role overall. Despite Running’s snowfall analysis that found an overall drop of a third over a 40-year span, Morris sees seasonal fluctuations but no overall trend. The 2005-2006 ski season, for instance, topped the charts in Montana ski visits, according to findings from UM’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. The total of 1.27 million visits statewide was a nearly 30-percent increase over the 2004-2005 season, which saw unusually poor snow conditions and constituted an 18-percent decrease from the 2003-2004 season. For all he knows, Morris says, climate change could end up bringing more, not less, snow to the area, and so he hasn’t spent much time worrying about how to make up for lost snow.

“I don’t know that anybody knows exactly what’s going to happen,” Morris says. “But the planning for it is basically the same as what we do right now.”

Gill certainly hopes that natural snowfall doesn’t melt into a thing of the past, but he’s hedging his bets just in case. Snowmaking will be a significant part of Bitterroot’s operations, particularly if the Forest Service doesn’t grant access to the nearby public lands and skiing is restricted to the low-elevation runs on Maclay’s property.

Regardless, Gill says, the resort plans to install an automated snowmaking system stretching from its 3,700-foot base up to 7,000 feet on the ski runs already striping Maclay’s property.

Automated snowmaking systems are rare in the United States for two reasons: they’re a relatively recent innovation and they’re exorbitantly expensive. They were pioneered in Europe, where most ski areas are at lower elevations and labor is more expensive, because they can cover bigger areas more quickly with less human involvement. Most ski areas make snow manually with “guns” that blow out a blend of water and air—snow, when the temperature’s right—and can be moved around the mountain by crews to ensure ground cover at low elevations or during poor snow seasons.

With an automated system, snow guns are installed at various points around a mountain and are activated and controlled by machines, not people.

“The beauty of the automated system is that when you have smaller windows of opportunity—like during the fall—those guns will turn on automatically,” Gill says. “You program it into your laptop and all the valves and water and air are preprogrammed to come on when you reach certain temperature parameters. And then it will pour out snow and the minute you lose those temperatures, the gun shuts itself down, the pipes automatically drain and you’re back into a safe mode.”

Another piece of technology not yet found in Montana that could give Bitterroot Resort a leg up on warming trends is a geothermal pump that draws warmth out of the ground beneath ski trails, encouraging snow to stick around longer while also creating excess heat that can be pumped into buildings for heating or beneath icy sidewalks, which could in turn save on snowplow fuel. Gill says he’s still learning about this new technology—its costs, effectiveness and potential drawbacks—but that he hopes to experiment with it on a small portion of Bitterroot’s slopes.

Gill says the cash flows resulting from real estate will allow for major infrastructure investments like automated snowmaking systems, but the flip side is that those who invest in real estate have higher expectations of reliability than the average skier who can just stay home on a poor day.

“I think resorts like ourselves will be buying technology that will allow us to sustain winter recreation. We’re paying more for it, obviously, but we know that in the long run, to be a viable resort you’ve got to be reliable,” Gill says. “You’ve got to have snow come Thanksgiving, so going the extra mile and buying the expensive equipment increases your chances of having the white stuff on the ground.”

Future speculations
At the budding Bitterroot Resort, which is looking to break into the ski business in an age of declining snowpacks, Gill’s ideas about how the ski industry will transform in the face of climate change are worth hearing.

He imagines the Montana ski hill of 2050 being as much about food and golf and other forms of entertainment as about skiing, and he says to expect an increase in restaurants and other amenities as resorts chase the snow farther up mountains. Gill anticipates that as energy costs continue to rise, greater emphasis will be placed on conservation programs—for both environmental and economic reasons.

He also sees greater weight being placed on snowmaking and other snow technology in coming years—which could certainly put a dent in the ski industry’s recent conservation efforts, and will entail greater amounts of planning, infrastructure and capital.

“Global warming and climate change are forcing us to take these alternatives seriously now,” says Gill. “Whereas in the past we just paid lip service to it, now we’re genuinely exploring these avenues because we see it coming.”

For many of the ski areas around the United States and Europe that have taken substantial steps to prevent or cope with climate change, the new approach is already in force. And those who haven’t taken major steps—like many of Montana’s ski areas—are making smaller efforts while they increasingly ponder what the future may bring. The vision of 2050 that once seemed so remote is closing in, and everyone wants to know what kind of season it’s shaping up to be.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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