North Face, K2 Sports and 90 other brands pen letter on climate change

Max Whittaker
A skier at Squaw Valley Resort in California's Sierra Nevada found a path of machine-made snow to ski on in the dry winter of 2015.

A surreal sight met skiers and snowboarders in the Sierra Nevada ski resorts for much of last winter: No snow.

Indeed, in a place where a decade earlier they’d routinely drive through 10-feet high drifts to get to ski places, they instead were met with barren brown hills dotted with little bits of white.  

Sure, the big resorts manufactured snow from machines so visitors could strap on skis and go down narrow paths. But there was none of the real stuff most of the winter.

Snowfall in the Sierras had been declining for years as the epic California drought took its toll year after year.

But something about zero snowfall during January, February and March in a place known for regular blizzards and piles of white brought home a stark and haunting worry: Climate change is for real.

The drought in the Western U.S. is caused by a lot of things — mostly a persistent high pressure ridge sitting over the Pacific coast and northern Pacific states that is blocking other atmospheric patterns from passing through. But scientists publishing in the Geophysical Research Letters have determined that absence of precipitation when joined with much warmer than normal temperatures exacerbated the drought, making it the most extreme in 1,200 years. The warming climate exacerbated the drought by 8 to 27 percent between 2012 and 2014. 

As dry ground persisted in the Sierras, the region's economy suffered. Smaller ski resorts shuttered; larger ones made snow from machines but kept many trails closed. Thousands of jobs were lost — or never materialized for the winter. Shops and restaurants went out of business.

And that was only one region of the country. The drought also hurt Pacific Northwest and Colorado skiing. In the Northeast, meanwhile, temperatures were so off-the-charts cold last winter that ski resorts there, too, suffered. Few people want to ski in 30-below weather.

Snow and Paris 

You could say the winter sports industry has had enough already.

This week, 92 brand companies — from the K2 Sports and Rossignol to North Face, Clif Bar and Burton — along with 53 resorts, 50 professional athletes and 13 snow sports trade groups signed a letter they intend to deliver to President Barack Obama about the urgency of climate change and encouraging him to bargain hard for a tough agreement when delegates meet for the U.N. Climate Change Convention or COP21 in Paris.

“The snowsports industry views climate change as an economic opportunity as well as an environmental issue. Our businesses support $62 billion in tourist-related revenue, 964,000 jobs and $4.6 billion in annual retail sales. We are united in our desire to reduce carbon emissions and transition to a clean energy future,” they wrote.

“2014 was the warmest year in the temperature record, and 2015 is on track to surpass it. Failure to act now on climate is unacceptable, and will result in damage to the environment, tourism and the economy. This is the greatest opportunity of our time. We need meaningful action from all, and it is time to act."

Technica USA, Outside Media, Head skis, Alpine Style, Cascade Design and Black Diamond Equipment are other brands that signed on. The 53 resorts that signed the letter span the country from California, Colorado and Utah to Vermont and New York and even politically conservative areas such as Wyoming and Montana.

They include Squaw Valley, Boreal, Aspen Mountain, Vail Resorts, Copper Meadow, Deer Valley, Alta, Killington in Vermont, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort.

Addressing the president, they wrote, “As you prepare for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, please know that the snowsports industry and professional athletes applaud your strong leadership on addressing climate change. Your work is critical in moving our country towards a clean energy economy, driving innovation and economic growth and helping us improve our resiliency over the long term."

Calling themselves the Protect Our Winters coalition, the group has a web site and invites individuals to join in.

Aspen Skiing Company, owner of four mountain resorts, two hotels and 18 restaurants, and employer of 3,600 people seasonally, is a signatory.

Auden Schendler, its vice president of sustainability, said the letter is intended to help the U.S. negotiate. 

“What we want to do with this letter is give political cover to the Obama administration from the business community to negotiate a tough deal in Paris,” Schendler said. “And we want to encourage other business sectors to do the same.”

Schendler said business must help create the “political will” for government action on climate. Indeed, if business doesn’t give that green light, it won’t happen.

“We think business has been remarkably silent on the climate issue and that silence is part of the reason for the lack of action,” he said. “So, we are trying to give voice from one sector and hope others follow."

There's no doubt that business has particular lobbying clout in Washington and this group of resorts and equipment manufacturers want to use that power on this issue.

“Business has a uniquely powerful voice in Washington. It will be very hard for conservatives in Washington to say, ‘Oh, they’re just a bunch of hippies,’” Schendler said, when business is calling for forceful action on climate change.

The signatories don't regard themselves as being on the political fringes in callng for action on climate change, he said — not after all that has happened. He said there's been a “sea change” in attitude in the past decade and a half, especially among the trade groups: “Fifteen years ago, none of these big sports trade groups would have been on this letter.”

They now see climate change as a business risk, not to mention a societal risk.

“This is the tipping point,” the letter stated. “Will we continue business as usual and ignore this threat, or will we work together to reduce global carbon emissions and preserve this planet for future generations? 

“Those of us who love and depend on snow for our sports and our livelihoods have a lot at stake, a $62 billion industry, supporting over 950,000 winter tourism-related jobs in the U.S. alone. The threat is real and we know what it looks like — warmer, drier winters, multi-year droughts shortening our season and forcing small businesses to close. This isn’t the future we want for us, or our children.”

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