The Dirty Secret of the Ski Industry

By NICK PENZEL

As snow blankets Colorado and brings smiles to the faces of skiers, ski industry leaders face a difficult challenge: a finite number of years are 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 works in the industry, 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 led industry efforts to combat 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 at Boulder study anticipated 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.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its latest analysis that “rapid and far-reaching” changes in industry and politics are required to limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels by 2040. “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. “Skiing brings me a lot of happiness,” Isabel Atkin ’21, Olympic slopestyle skiing medalist, 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. 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 … 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 its 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; changing individual company practices to be green “totally misses the point,” he said. “Here are the little rinky-dink things that we are doing so people don’t criticize us.”

The industry claims that it is 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,’ said Schendler. “Well, that has nothing to do with stopping climate change, because the problem is a global scale problem.”

Aspen says that they are attempting to move beyond these superficial efforts to address climate change. “We are trying to use the outdoor industry like the NRA, but with a focus on climate, and own that policy world,” Schendler said. 

Aspen officials acknowledge complexities and ironies, such as 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.” Even if ski areas can rally larger systematic changes, it still might not be enough. “The dirty secret is that we’re not going to save it,” said Schendler. 

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