Park City Life: The Heat is On

The ski industry’s two-faced response to global warming.

Skiing through powder in Park City can be compared to an immersion in cold smoke—the result of a perfect combination of temperature and moisture, making the snow so light and dry, it seems to disappear into thin air as you ski through it.

Parkites experiencing this divine concoction—the pinnacle of downhill skiing—find themselves surrounded by reassuring symbols of the resorts’ commitment to ensuring such powder days will continue season after season, forever.

Whether it’s Park City’s solar thermal array on Mid Mountain Lodge, the LED lights at Legacy or the bio-diesel snow cats at the LEED-certified Montage hotel in Deer Valley—resorts proudly display their efforts to slow climate change that would destroy the powder snow, their highly profitable resorts and the communities around them.

But behind closed doors, the ski industry has a cynical agenda that shows these minimal environmental gestures are simply marketing window dressing for public consumption.

A November 2016 story in Powder Magazine highlighted an industry-wide trend among ski resorts and industry-affiliated groups to provide hefty political contributions to climate-change deniers who are responsible for stonewalling environmental legislation. The Intermountain West ski industry that includes Park City Mountain (Vail Resorts) and Deer Valley (Deer Valley Resort Company) financially supports climate change deniers.

Considering the ski industry would cease to exist without snow, this leaves observers scratching their heads. Reactions range from anger (“Corporate greed knows no bounds!”) to defensiveness (“Big businesses contribute to conservative politicians for more than just green issues”). Deer Valley Resort Company made contributions to Gov. Gary Herbert, who insists the science on climate change “is not necessarily conclusive.” Sorry, Guv, it is.

Vail Resorts has donated to opponents of climate-change legislation through political action committees. Vail Resorts PAC gave money to Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart—climate-change deniers with histories of opposing greenhouse gas-emissions regulation. Vail Resorts Employee PAC contributed to House Speaker Paul Ryan (a climate-change skeptic) and Vail Resorts Management Company contributed to Herbert. 

But the companies say critics of their contributions are misinformed.

“Climate change is one of the most critical issues facing the planet. And Vail Resorts firmly believes we should all be working on solutions to help combat these issues,” Margo Van Ness, Vail Resorts senior communications manager, wrote in a statement to Salt Lake magazine. “The Vail Resorts Employee PAC is a non-partisan committee that contributes to a wide variety of candidates and engages on a number of issues important to the company. The Employee PAC believes in openly discussing and working with elected officials of both parties, who agree and disagree with us on issues, and we do not shy away from raising important topics with them, including advocating for taking action on climate change.”

When reached for comment, Deer Valley’s spokeswoman Emily Summers explained their contribution wasn’t linked to climate change, but economic development. “Deer Valley Resort made a donation to Ski Utah in support of Gov. Herbert and his efforts to recognize and promote the economic contribution the tourism industry brings to state of Utah.”

Still, for a climate-dependant industry, this doesn’t make long-term sense. Lawmakers unwilling to compromise, or even accept overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, obviously will negate the resorts’ puny green initiatives.

Climate activists know deregulation of energy policy has more of an impact on the environment than Deer Valley’s sustainable-slopes program or Park City Mountain’s investment in energy-efficient equipment.

The specter of a diminished snowpack should give the resorts night terrors. No snow means an economic drought for Utah. The National Resource Defense Council and Protect Our Winters contracted a comprehensive study from the University of New Hampshire on the economic impacts of climate change on winter tourism. The findings were grim. Utah sees 14 percent fewer skier visits in low-snow years than high-snow years, leading to an economic loss of $66 million along with more than 1,000 jobs cut. As snowpack averages continue to diminish long-term and ski seasons get shorter, it’s not only the economic viability of the ski industry that’s at stake, but the health of the communities that rely on it.

These politicians, supported by the ski industry, see alternative energy as a pipe dream. An industry insider who works for an energy consulting company spoke on condition of anonymity. A pro-fossil fuel energy policy in Utah is shortsighted, he says. He suggests we could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and consumer energy costs while developing renewable energy. “Support for coal is typically based on cost, but consumer energy prices are decreasing even while recent coal regulation is being enforced and natural gas and renewable energy use increases.”

He pointed to an independent October 2016 analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration and a National Renewable Energy Laboratory  assessment as evidence.

Skiers, a mostly affluent group, are becoming more serious about fighting climate change and it effects who they support in elections. It may soon effect where they spend their recreation money. They just might choose resorts that put corporate money behind politicians who will keep the snow coming.

— written by Tony Gill

Tony Gill
Tony Gill
Tony Gill is the outdoor and Park City editor for Salt Lake Magazine and previously toiled as editor-in-chief of Telemark Skier Magazine. Most of his time ignoring emails is spent aboard an under-geared single-speed on the trails above his home.

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