With new tone, a more unified ski industry raises its profile on climate | AspenTimes.com

With new tone, a more unified ski industry raises its profile on climate

Allen Best
Mountain Town News
Aspen Mountain reported 6 inches of new snow Monday morning, making for a nice powder day to kick off the week. The ski industry now has a more unified voice through efforts such as Protect Our Winters and other advocacy-based initiatives meant to ensure that powder days won't become a thing of the past.
Courtesy photo |

Wyoming listens to idea of a carbon tax

Jerry Blann went to Charleston, S.C., in May 2013 for an industry conference and returned to Wyoming with a message about climate change solutions he believes can resonate even in a state that produces nearly half of U.S. coal.

Former Republican congressman Bob Inglis spoke there. He was conservative enough to win the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, although not conservative enough to win re-election in 2008.

In Charleston, he spoke about his upbringing in South Carolina, according to the recollections of several people who were there. He had grown up near a paper mill. “That’s the smell of money,” his parents and other townspeople had said of the air pollution. Returning as an adult for a meeting, the out-of-town visitors commented on the smell and asked him why people had tolerated it.

That experience, along with comments from his own children, pushed him to accept the science of climate change.

Inglis concluded that greenhouse gases, as with pollution from the paper plant, shouldn’t be allowed to pollute the atmosphere freely. After being defeated for re-election, Inglis founded the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, which advocates “conservative and free-enterprise solutions to energy and climate change.” Among the market-based solutions is a tax or fee on carbon emissions, with the intent of stimulating innovation and change.

The proposal by Inglis — similar to that being pushed by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby — would be revenue neutral, meaning taxes on carbon emissions would be returned to people through reduced income taxes or direct payments.

Blann returned to Wyoming, where he persuaded Gov. Matt Mead to have Inglis speak at an economic forum. He says that Wyoming’s congressional delegation, although publicly protective of Wyoming’s carbon-based sector (See Nov. 25 op/ed by Sen. John Barrasso in the Wall Street Journal), do understand the need for changes.

“They get this. They do,” he says. He hopes a tax will stimulate innovation that allows Wyoming to continue to exploit its vast carbon resources through technology such as gasification and carbon capture and sequestration.

In September, as world leaders began preparing for this week’s climate-change negotiations in Paris, the ski industry sent a letter of stern words to President Barack Obama. But it also mentioned a silver lining.

“Failure to act now on climate is unacceptable, and will result in damage to the environment, tourism and the economy,” said the letter, which was endorsed by 13 trade groups and associations, including the National Ski Areas Association. “This is the greatest opportunity of our time.”

The letter was indicative of a new, unified approach by the ski industry and its partners, one that emphasizes solutions, not worrisome climate-change science.

“We aren’t calling people who don’t believe in climate change stupid,” said David Ingemie, president of SnowSports Industries America, a trade association representing retailers and manufacturers. “More people are listening, and it’s less confrontational.”

Some individuals point to the success of Protect Our Winters, an organization made up of athletes and other snowsports-industry folks, after it moderated its previously hard-line approach. Others say they have been persuaded by the market-based approach advocated by Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina. But few talk about the science.

“When you talk doom and gloom, that turns more people into deniers. They think things are hopeless,” said Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association, a trade association for ski-area operators and suppliers in the United States.

“That has been a huge shift in the dialogue within the ski industry, that recognition that all of that doom and gloom is not having any effect on Washington decision-makers or on everyday people,” Link said.

Solutions, she said, draw interest from conservative lawmakers.

“When you’re in Washington, the most productive conversation is about solutions, and that occurs more frequently than you would expect,” she said. “Even the most conservative offices in Washington like to talk about solutions. They like to talk about efficiency. And so, if we talk about U.S. independence and better energy security for the future, many, many offices in Washington are willing to engage in that conversation.”

Unmistakable warming trends, however, also have given resort operators an incentive to speak up.

“Fifteen years ago, (Wyoming’s)Jackson Hole Mountain Resort was called too high, too cold and too far,” said Jerry Blann, president of the resort company. “I like to say that climate change is working on that middle one.”

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort had 20 record-warm days last winter. Records go back 40 years. In the nearby town of Jackson, the annual snowmobile hill climb in March was canceled for the first time because of high temperatures.

Blann said the ski industry always has had skeptics of climate-change science.

“But it’s less and less so,” he said. “It’s somewhat the result of younger people getting into our industry, and it’s also a recognition that we’re getting a lot more warmer days.”

“A reasonable person has to wake up,” he added. “We have to lean in and do our part.”

Multiple ski-area operators — including Aspen Skiing Co. and Vail Resorts — also have agreed to put their names on a full-page advertisement running today in the Wall Street Journal. More than 100 businesses signed onto the ad, including Coca-Cola Co., QualComm, Hilton WorldWide, DuPont, General Mills and Ingersoll-Rand. The advertisement calls for an agreement that “provides long-term direction and periodic strengthening to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Centigrade.”

The full-page ad also encourages the U.S. government to “support investment in the low-carbon economy at home and abroad, giving industry clarity and boosting the confidence of investors.”


Aspen and Vail in the past have approached climate change very differently.

Vail has focused on cleaning its own house. Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz in 2008 announced a goal of achieving a 10 percent across-the-board reduction in energy use. The company succeeded in just three years. He then set a goal of another 10 percent reduction by 2020. The company already has achieved a 7 percent reduction, reports Kelly Ladyga, vice president of corporate communications.

But Katz disavowed using skiing as the axis for making a climate change argument.

“You can count me out of the group that says we need to address climate change to save skiing,” he wrote in a December 2012 op-ed published in The Denver Post, then added: “But to the folks trying to alarm people with images of melting snow, here is the dirty little secret: When the effects of climate change really show up, no one will care about skiing at Aspen and Vail.”

Aspen, while reducing its carbon footprint, has robustly embraced advocacy. This winter, for example, cards are being given out to customers of the company’s hotels and four ski areas. The card describes the shifting climate in Aspen, 2 degrees higher in the past 25 years, and correlates the shift to accumulating greenhouse gases. Aspen’s card also urges customers to contact elected officials about climate change.

Company representatives, including CEO Mike Kaplan, have lobbied and testified in Washington, D.C., and Skico also filed an amicus brief in a major lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006. Massachusetts and other states and cities argued that the Environmental Protection Agency was obligated under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The court agreed in 2007, leading to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from electrical production 30 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.

The catalyst of change

The Clean Power Plan has been a fulcrum for ski-industry advocacy in Utah and in New Hampshire. (See sidebar on page A7).

Protect Our Winters has been active in coalescing support for the Clean Power Plan. The organization was formed in 2007 by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones and grew to include other winter athletes.

“Though we can dress up for meetings, in the end we are pro athletes, dirtbags and die-hards; for us, winter is not just a passion, but a way of life,” the organization’s website explains.

Nathan Rafferty, chief executive of Ski Utah, a trade group, credits Protect Our Winters as the catalyst of change in his trade group.

“I remember thinking it was the right fit,” he said. “They are one of us.” He said Protect Our Winters’ message resonated with the directors of Ski Utah.

“They really focused on the good things, what can be done, as opposed to the sky is falling, which really doesn’t leave a very good taste in our mouth,” he said.

Ski Utah then began investing its political capital.

“We have some serious political clout in this state,” Rafferty said. “We are a $1.2 billion industry in the state, and in a state of 3 million people, that’s a big deal. We feel the time is right to use that influence to make us a better place.”

Rafferty credits — as do others — the skills of Chris Steinkamp, director of Protect Our Winters.

“He has a real reasonable tone about him, and with him at the helm, it gave us a comfort level that this was a group we could engage in. Our goal is just to amplify Protect Our Winters’ voice and craft it in a way to use it locally, different than in California or in Colorado.”

A former marketer, Steinkamp said Protect Our Winters has been downplaying the gloomy science of climate change for a year and a half because the science was understood. People in the ski business also were seeing the climate change personally.

“Everything that was being predicted was coming true. There wasn’t any real upside to talk about the dire consequences anymore. I think everybody had kind of understood that, and it was basically shutting people down,” Steinkamp said.

At the same time, renewable energy has become cheaper and more effective.

“We had solutions,” he said. Instead of the gloomy changes, Protect Our Winters could talk about solutions.

In Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley Chief Executive Andy Wirth has cited both economic and environmental reasons to support the Clean Power Plan in a September op-ed in the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Wirth detected a shift in the ski industry about five years ago, but before that, the strongest voice came from Skico’s Auden Schendler. His alarm-bell message wasn’t particularly popular.

“Ten years ago, Auden Schendler was considered a bit of a pariah,” Wirth said. “There were folks in the industry who didn’t think highly of him. He’s now regarded as a pioneer, and he has the bumps and bruises and scars to prove that.”

Schendler, now vice president of sustainability at Skico, acknowledges his change.

“I think I have evolved,” he said.

But the industry also has shifted toward his stance. The National Ski Areas Association’s SustainableSlopes Program now requires advocacy, not just in-house energy reductions.