PHOTO: Mikko Lampinen
The future of skiing can be summed up like this: The planet is warming; snow melts when it is warm. And state and federal climate change legislation—that keeps billions of tons of carbon in the ground instead of up in the air—is the best, perhaps only, way to save snow.
So it is surprising that in 2016, ski resorts, trade groups, and industry leaders—who work in one of the most susceptible regions to warming in the world—are actively supporting Congressional candidates responsible for blocking climate change legislation.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, "Vail Resorts PAC" sent thousands of dollars to the campaigns of stalwart climate change deniers Reps. Cory Gardner (R-Col.), Chris Stewart (R-Utah), Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Scott Tipton (R-Col.), and Tom McClintock (R-Calif.). Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz donated $10,000 to the PAC in 2015 and 2016. Former CEO John Redmond, Executive Vice President David T. Shapiro, and several other high-level executives donated as well. Vail Resorts owns Whistler-Blackcomb, Breckenridge, Keystone, Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, and Park City, among many other properties around the globe.
Cascadian spring snowpack is down 20 to 40 percent. Northern Rockies spring snowpack is down 15 to 30 percent. By 2050, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is projected to decrease 40 to 70 percent. If we do not slow or stop burning fossil fuels, we will be looking at brown mountain ranges all winter long as soon as 80 years from now.
Another Vail PAC, called "Vail Resorts Employee," sent notorious climate denier, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) $5,000. The Park Record reported in July that Vail Resorts Management Company got involved in local Utah politics, sending $3,000 to help re-elect Gov. Gary Herbert—who claims the science of climate change "is not necessarily conclusive" and is blocking President Obama's plan to clean up Utah's coal-fired power plants. Herbert also received donations from Deer Valley Resort Company, Solitude Mountain Resort, Alta Ski Area, Snowbird, and Brighton Ski Resort. The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) even got in on the action, donating $2,000 through its PAC in 2012 to Bishop and Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). Barrasso built his platform around defeating climate change legislation in the Senate and tried last fall to block Congressional funds promised to the historic Paris Agreement Green Fund.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has long claimed to be a champion of the fight against climate change, often citing the fact that president Jerry Blann initiated the NSAA's first environmental efforts in the early 2000s. Yet in 2016, Blann sent checks to the pro-oil, pro-coal, pro-gas Republican National Committee and Leland Christensen—a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives who is laying the groundwork for a massive coal port on the lower Snake River that would transport millions of tons of Powder River Basin coal to Asia. Between 2013-2014, Blann also supported pro-fossil fuel Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Senators Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Barrasso.
Jackson Hole owner, Jay Kemmerer, doubled down on defeating climate change legislation by donating $144,500 to the Republican National Committee between 2015-2016—and another $21,600 to Ryan and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Johnson recently said that "civilization thrives" in warmer temperatures. Kemmerer also supported Barrasso, Marco Rubio, and presidential candidate Scott Walker. (The Kemmerer family made its money in Wyoming's Powder River coal mines, before selling them off in the 1980s. The region now supplies the U.S. with 40 percent of its coal.)
With the snow woes California has seen recently, it is stunning that Mammoth Mountain CEO Rusty Gregory sent $21,100 to climate-denier Rep. Paul Cook (R-Cal.) between 2010 and 2015. Cook pushed the Mammoth Mountain-Forest Service land swap deal through Congress in 2016, and recently called the Clean Power Plan, “another example of this lawless administration side-stepping Congress and over-regulating the American economy." In 2014, Mammoth VP Ronald Cohen donated $5,000 to one of the only Democrats who supported the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking, and nearly all oil industry interests, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
Legislators who deny that the planet is warming and who block all efforts to regulate coal-fired power plants, fund renewable energy initiatives, and limit greenhouse gas emissions can be considered anti-skiing and anti-snow.
"Too many leaders in the ski business do their bit on climate change and then move on to the 'real' stuff,'" Protect Our Winters (POW) Board Chair and Aspen Skiing Company’s vice president of environmental sustainability Auden Schendler said. "Next year's numbers, any given public lands or water bill, backing politicians who are 'business friendly.' There should be a litmus test."
Throughout the ski industry, many executives have not made not the connection between a warming planet and their bottom line. Stephen Kircher, who runs Boyne Resorts' eastern resorts like Loon Mountain, Sunday River and Sugarloaf, has supported a host of climate deniers, including $5,500 in 2014 to Congressman Dan Benishek. Benishek, who claims he is an amateur scientist, referred to climate change as "unproven science stuff." Squaw Valley's parent company KSL Capital Partners gave $422,200 to a range of pro-fossil fuel candidates in 2016 alone, including deniers Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Col.), Sen. Johnson, and presidential candidate Jeb Bush—even as Squaw CEO Andy Wirth advocated for clean power in Nevada and California.
What is at stake are not only America's ski resorts. Spring snowpack feeds rivers, farms, forests, and communities across the country, and it is disappearing at an alarming rate. A million square miles of spring snowpack has vanished from the Northern Hemisphere in the last 50 years. The rate of winter warming in the U.S. has tripled since 1970. Cascadian spring snowpack is down 20-40 percent. Northern Rockies spring snowpack is down 15-30 percent. By 2050, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is projected to decrease 40 to 70 percent. Already, half of the 103 ski resorts in the East are predicted to close due to warmer temperatures and lack of snow in the next 25 years. By the end of the century, average snowpack at Park City is estimated to be zero.
"Right now, supporting these guys, it's like we're saying: 'Hey, we'll give you money, just as long as you can guarantee you'll destroy our livelihood.'" —Auden Schendler
In the face of this data, legislators who deny that the planet is warming and who block all efforts to regulate coal-fired power plants, fund renewable energy initiatives, and limit greenhouse gas emissions can be considered anti-skiing and anti-snow. Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop voted YES to bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, NO on enforcing limits on CO2 global warming pollution, and NO on tax credits for renewable electricity. Colorado's Cory Gardner—who received $695,000 in 2014 from the oil and gas industry—voted repeatedly to maintain taxpayer subsidies for highly profitable oil companies and voted against every major climate change initiative introduced on the House floor.
There are a few who are doing the right thing. Since 2010, Powdr Corp—which owns Killington, Copper, and Mount Bachelor and just teamed up to manage Boyne's resorts—has given $250,000 to climate change advocates. In the same timeframe, Aspen Skiing Co. donated $80,000 to elect pro-climate legislators. POW has been to Washington 10 times in the last six years—usually to the White House—to convince Congressional legislators, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, and President Obama to clean up coal-fired power plants and keep oil and natural gas interests from turning our mountains from white to brown.
For a decade and a half, ski resort executives have told their patrons they are stepping up their environmental game—announcing nominal initiatives like running B-5 biodiesel (5 percent bio, 95 percent fossil fuel) or expanded "awareness" campaigns. Instead of using their influence and assets to push politicians to make national policy change, they buy ineffective renewable energy credits (RECs)—which Michael Gillenwater, executive director of the nonprofit Greenhouse Gas Management Institute, said, "…have no significant effect on how much renewable energy is generated."
The ski industry did not create climate change, but skiers and mountain folk are among a few populations who will be hit hardest by it. Supporting politicians who have made their careers taking money from the oil industry, while blockading climate change legislation, is irresponsible and dangerous, Schendler says. "Right now, supporting these guys, it's like we're saying: 'Hey, we'll give you money, just as long as you can guarantee you'll destroy our livelihood.'"