Colson: Warm enough for you this winter? Maybe too warm? |

Colson: Warm enough for you this winter? Maybe too warm?

with John Colson

A number of years ago, I read an article by an Associated Press reporter about the looming death of the western U.S. ski industry due to a lack of snow and rising annual temperatures.

Although the exact date escapes my memory today, it was in the mid-1980s, well before climate change became a worldwide hot-button issue.

But the writer was addressing the growing conviction among scientists that western U.S. temperatures already were rising, and that the trend was likely to continue into the future.

As a result, the article posited, the fate of the skiing industry was in jeopardy, and with it the economies of large parts of the western U.S. that depend on skiing as a chief economic engine.

At the time that I read that article, being too young and dumb to take in all the broader implications represented on the page, my only thought was that I’d better get a lot of skiing under my belt as quickly as possible before the “snow line,” as the latitude of predictable snowfall was termed then, moves northward to Montana.

Well, I guess the future is now, eh?

That, at least, appears to be the feeling among winter sports experts, who will be meeting in Denver later this month at a gathering known as The Assembly, at the Colorado Convention Center.

This will be the third time the group has met on this topic, according to an Aspen Times news story, but my guess is that these meetings are being held in an atmosphere of annually increasing urgency as the future of snow sports appears more and more fragile.

To fuel that urgency, the participants in Denver need only to look to the immediate west, because here in the central Rockies, this has been a mighty strange winter.

While the snowpack in the upper elevations seems to be holding steady for most resorts, temperatures in the valleys immediately below the Great Divide have been too high for snow to do much except melt out.

At least here in Carbondale, as I look out my home-office window and contemplate the high clouds and patchy, thin blanket of snow, it sure doesn’t look normal to me.

I can recall my first winter and spring in Carbondale, back in 1978-79, when the snow piled so high outside my front door that my motorcycle went into a kind of deep hibernation and was not visible except for the very tops of the handlebar mirrors for about three months.

This year, if I was feeling frisky, I probably could have taken my bike out for a ride over last weekend, as long as I suited up in full leathers and stayed out of the shady stretches of highway where the sun never reaches and a sheet of ice is as likely as not to appear around the next corner. There are no studs on my motorcycle’s tires, just the one sitting on the saddle.

Anyways, The Assembly, according to the story, is pretty tightly oriented on the coming summer and winter seasons, with an eye toward helping mountain resorts figure out how to attract the most tourists, and is timed to coincide with the annual SnowSports Industries America trade show.

But the planners of The Assembly are looking a little further than just next year’s big thing.

This year’s topics, according to one of the planners, will be geared toward helping mountain resorts figure out “new ways to be successful on a year-round basis without using the old model that depends heavily on the ski resort being primarily responsible for growth.”

What does that mean?

I sure don’t know, but I imagine it could very well mean our mountain economies are due for a serious slimming down as the decades advance.

For example, the Crown family could very well decide that its investments in the skiing economy are no longer “viable,” as the catchphrase goes, and either sell it at a loss to some corporate raider or simply close up shop and go home to Chicago.

If that were to happen, we could see a mighty cascade of business failures and relocations as the rest of the economy reacted to the spectacle of seeing the Big Dog pick up its chewy toys and walk out the door.

Or, if The Assembly is successful and supremely foresighted, the speakers and participants might come up with ways the Crowns and other resort owners can hang onto their “properties” in a sustainable way, since the mountains will still be here with all their attendant beauty and spiritual inspiration.

But without the snow, whence would come the water we all need to survive, from the human hustlers in the resort towns to the bear, elk, lions and other denizens of the high country?

There are no answers to such questions, as yet. And when there are, it may be too late for planning.