ASPEN - Two environmental groups released a report Thursday that shows climate change will likely devastate the ski industry in coming decades if no action is taken.
The release of the report triggered a sharp exchange between an Aspen Skiing Co. executive and a national ski trade group over how the industry has responded to the threat of global warming. Auden Schendler, Skico vice president of sustainability, criticized the ski industry's track record on dealing with climate change.
"The response has been defensive for the most part," he said.
Schendler called on industry officials to "get off their asses" and treat climate change like an "existential threat."
The National Ski Areas Association, a national ski-industry trade group based in Lakewood, countered with a statement touting ski areas' steps to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions and the industry's initiatives to build awareness about climate change.
"The ski industry took a leadership role on this issue over a decade ago, and we continue to advance that mission," said Michael Berry, president of the national association, in a statement.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters commissioned the study by Elizabeth Burakowski and Matthew Magnusson, researchers at the University of New Hampshire. Their analysis indicated that winter tourism raked in $1 billion less in the two lowest-snow years in the past decade compared with the two highest-snow years over that same period. The winter tourism industry, which includes snowmobiling in addition to alpine skiing, brings in $12.2 billion annually in 38 states.
In Colorado, ski-resort revenues dropped $154 million in low-snow years compared with high-snow years, the study said. Skier visits - the industry measurement for how many people hit the slopes - dropped by 8 percent in the leanest-snow years. About 1,867 jobs in winter tourism are lost when snowfall is poor.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters commissioned the study because they found in past lobbying efforts that members of Congress want hard data on how climate change would effect the winter tourism economy, according to Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters.
Burakowski said "snow is currency" for the winter-tourism industry. A decrease in snow undermines the industry and the economies of the 38 states where skiing and snowmobiling are primary activities.
Scientists contend that temperatures could increase between 4 and 10 degrees by the end of the century, Burakowski noted. The snowpack is expected to decline 25 to 100 percent, depending on elevation and latitude, she said.
Colorado has some of the highest-elevation ski areas, so it's likely they will be able to operate for the next couple of decades as the snow line marches up, Burakowski said. The changes won't happen overnight, but climate-change models show a bleak future for snow even at high elevations. More precipitation is expected to fall as rain.
The environmental organizations plan to get the study in the hands of members of Congress. Schendler said he's not ready to write off the ski industry's future.
"I think it's important to say the demise of the ski industry isn't imminent at all," he said.
He believes ski trade groups such as the National Ski Areas Association should feature experts on climate change at their annual meetings. Executives of ski resorts should be educated on the science of climate change so they can see clearly that changes must be made, he said.
Once education takes place, he would like to see ski-industry leaders make strong public statements about national policy on reducing greenhouse gases. Leaders also should "go to Washington, D.C., with a large coalition and hammer on it," he said.
Schendler said he was surprised by the National Ski Areas Association's statement Thursday, the day the climate-change-impact report came out. In his view, it demonstrated the ski industry's unwillingness to look at climate change seriously.
The statement stressed that ski-resort operators are aware of climate change but optimistic for the future. Ski areas enjoyed their best 10-year average on record over the past decade.
"In each season the 10-year average for visits has been on the upswing, and revenues have steadily increased as well," the association's statement said.