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Warmer climate threatens skiing

Jim CarltonVail, CO Colorado
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NORDEN, Calif. (AP) – Snow has been hard to come by here in the Sierra Nevadas this winter. Last year, the Berkshires and the southern Rockies went wanting. And the year before that, the Cascades.No one is quite sure why each has suffered its low-snow season of discontent, but as the warmest winter on record winds down, the ski industry has settled on a suspect: It has stepped up its efforts to combat global warming. After all, few businesses stand to lose as much from climate change.”Put it this way: If we don’t start reacting now we may not have a ski season,” says Rachael Woods, spokeswoman for Alpine Meadows, a privately owned Lake Tahoe ski area near here.Resorts are trying everything from educational presentations for guests to investing in renewable energy and soliciting skiers to contribute to those projects, too.For example, Sugar Bowl Ski Resort here in 2004 launched a “Start Global Cooling” campaign with Clif Bar & Co., a maker of protein bars in Berkeley, Calif.Under the program, Sugar Bowl – privately owned by a consortium composed of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s wealthiest residents, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – invests about $25,000 to $30,000 a year in wind farms and other renewable energy sources, says Greg Murtha, the resort’s marketing director. The amount is calculated by multiplying the amount of energy Sugar Bowl uses by the cost per kilowatt hour of the renewable power it’s investing in.Even though that cost isn’t huge, it can be significant in a competitive industry with lean profit margins.”It’s a tough business, but people up here are willing to do the right thing,” says Jim Harleen, a retired art dealer and local resident, whose family is a part-owner of Sugar Bowl.Other Tahoe resorts, including Northstar-at-Tahoe and Alpine Meadows, soon followed suit. Across the country, 55 ski resorts are now buying renewable energy under a program called “Keep Winter Cool,” which was started in 2003 by the National Ski Areas Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Of those, 26 – including Vail Resorts’ five mountains in Colorado and California, Sugar Bowl, Aspen Skiing Co.’s four resorts in Colorado and Sugarloaf/USA Ski Resort in Maine – have offset all of their power consumption by investing in green generating projects and making some of their own renewable electricity, such as using wind power to run a chair lift. Industry officials estimate that this has kept out of the air the equivalent of pollution from 168,000 round-trip jet flights between New York and San Francisco.

Some U.S. ski resorts have been blessed with abundant snowfall this season, especially in states such as Colorado. And spurred by snowboarding and a renewed interest in extreme skiing, numbers remain high, with a record 59 million people skiing or snowboarding in the U.S. last season, according to industry estimates.But many scientists say the conditions that some resorts are seeing are consistent with the effects of global warming. Over all, 10 of the warmest winters globally since 1880 have occurred since 1995, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. No one knows for sure whether these milder winters are from climate change or natural weather cycles.Resorts in California and the Northeast saw slim snowpacks in their busy holiday period this winter. Lake Tahoe’s Alpine Meadows received about 200 inches of snowfall this year, compared with an annual average of 365 inches. At Sugar Bowl, which averages 500 inches a year, the resort has gotten a little over 200 inches. Sugar Bowl officials say the paucity of snow has contributed to an expected 10 percent drop to 180,000 paid visitors this season, which was also a down year.Like most resorts around Lake Tahoe, Sugar Bowl augments its base with artificial snow, but it’s impractical to cover many of the resort’s 90 trails. Snowmaking is expensive and the slopes here are rocky and need to be covered with three to four feet to be skied safely.What’s more, snowmaking uses power and water. And, of course, the temperature has to be below freezing – a problem if the world really is warming.On the slopes, everyone has an opinion, even if their reasoning is less than scientific.”It’s definitely global warming,” says J.J. Engel, a 17-year-old resident of the nearby town of Truckee, who was skiing with friends amid 65 degree-temperatures at Sugar Bowl last week.”I mean, you can see dirt over there,” he added, pointing to protruding soil near one ski run. “We used to never see dirt there this time of year.”But some skiers wonder what all the fuss is about. Debarking from a chairlift on a mountain atop Alpine Meadows last week, 56-year-old Phillip Layton scoffed at the notion that global warming would be a problem for skiing. “I’m not going to buy into all the left-wing, political, Al Gore hysteria,” says Mr. Layton, a pharmaceutical representative from Houston, before leaning into a steep run.

Despite all of their new global-cooling hoopla, ski executives admit their campaign will hardly dent the problem of greenhouse-gas emissions that more and more scientists say are at least in part behind global warming.

Still, “in order for us to encourage other people to act, we feel we should do what we can to address global warming,” says Geraldine Link, director of public policy at the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group in Lakewood, Colo.Many ski resorts that haven’t completely offset their power use by installing or investing in renewable-energy projects are greening up where they can. The Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock, Mass., for instance, has constructed a 375-foot-high wind turbine to provide as much as a third of its power needs. With a ribbon-cutting ceremony planned for Aug. 15, resort officials say they hope power savings from the $3.9 million turbine will enable them to recoup their investment in seven years, while also helping the environment.Skiers themselves are being asked to pitch in. At Oregon’s Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort, season-ticket skiers can pay $20 extra for a “SkiGreen” tag. That money is invested by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation in renewable energy projects. Meanwhile, guests get 40 percent off lift tickets at Colorado’s Arapaho Basin Ski Area if they drive up with four or more people in their vehicles.Suppliers and retailers are also getting in the act. Clif Bar and Patagonia Inc. this winter sponsored a “Global Cooling Tour” by extreme skier Alison Gannett. Besides thrilling crowds with her aerial adventure shows at resorts world-wide, she put on multimedia slide shows on global warming; her trainer was the leading anti-greenhouse-gas spokesman – Al Gore.But ski resorts, which cut down forests to create ski slopes and build condos, still haven’t completely won over environmentalists. A group called the Sierra Nevada Alliance recently condemned a proposal by officials at the Heavenly Mountain Resort at Lake Tahoe to chop down hundreds of ancient fir trees to make way for a new chairlift, even as it praised the participation of Heavenly and its parent, Vail Resorts Inc., in the global-warming campaign. “While some of the resorts are thinking globally, they aren’t thinking locally,” says Autumn Bernstein, land-use coordinator for the alliance.Officials at Heavenly say they plan to mitigate the loss of the trees by working to protect old trees in other parts of the forest. “What environmentalists need to understand is that we are excellent stewards of the environment,” says Heavenly spokesman Russ Pecoraro.


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