Outdoor recreation can't beat the heat of climate change
In Montana and similar big-sky places across the U.S., outdoor recreation is core both to the local economy and a way of life. Climate change is beginning to undermine this as it alters the natural systems and habitats that outdoor recreation depends upon.
Many product companies and resort destinations are positioned to adapt to this change. Others businesses, including local outfitters and guides, may not be as fortunate. Regardless, all companies have the opportunity to take a leadership role in responding to climate change, and in the process, to help preserve a way of life that dates back generations.
Outdoor recreation economy
Outdoor recreation represents a significant share of the U.S. economy: $646 billion in annual spending that supports more than 6.1 million direct — and countless more indirect — jobs. Spending includes $120 billion on outdoor recreation products and $543 billion for trips and travel-related spending.
Climate change is expected to affect this. While comprehensive national studies are hard to come by, state-level impact has been documented. Take Montana. Today, the economic contribution (PDF) of outdoor recreation in that state is significant: $5.8 billion in consumer spending and 64,000 jobs — or more than 12 percent of total employment across the state. According to a recent report (PDF) prepared for the Montana Wildlife Federation, climate change is expected to eliminate 11,000 jobs related to outdoor recreation, or one in six in the state.
Jobs are only part of what is at risk. Nearly three-quarters of all Montana residents (PDF) participate in outdoor activities each year, one of the highest participation rates of any state. Climate change is forecasted (PDF) to have a dramatic impact on this and expected to cause a 33 percent decline in snow sports, a 15 percent decline in big game hunting and a 33 percent drop in angler days.
Adapting to climate change
Certain outdoor recreation companies are better positioned than others to adapt to climate change. For example, product companies can diversify their product lines, such as reducing their dependence on cold-weather products. Columbia Sportswear, a leading outdoor apparel company, recently acquired PrAna, a yoga and climbing apparel company. Newell Rubbermaid recently floated the idea of selling off winter sports brands that it acquired with Jarden this year.
Similarly, ski resorts are making investments to attract visitors year round. For example, Big Sky Resorts in Montana made investments in warm weather activities such as bike trails and zip lines. Last year, summer revenue was up 10 percent.
When it comes to climate change, adaption is not the only thing product companies and resorts can do; they also can take a leadership role to help mitigate it. This means reducing impact across their supply chains — from the sourcing of materials to selling products at retail.
One way to do so is by having more companies adopt the Higgs Index to guide internal decision-making and vendor selection. Another way is by encouraging more companies to switch to renewable energy to power their facilities.
Climate action should not just be limited to operational decisions. Climate leadership also means being more transparent with consumers. One way to do so is by transforming the Higgs Index into a consumer-facing label in order to allow consumers to make their preferences known with their wallets.
While product manufacturers and resorts are positioned to take action, other types of businesses such as fishing outfitters and guides are in more precarious positions, as their prosperity is highly dependent on the health of local rivers.
Last summer, for example, many of Montana’s rivers were subject to "hoot-owl" fishing restrictions from afternoon until midnight when higher-than-normal heat put excessive stress on cold water fish. Those that remained open ended up overcrowded with anglers.
Worse, climate change is impacting the aquatic habitats where Montana’s prized trout live. As temperatures rise, warm water fish such as the smallmouth bass are moving upstream into higher elevations, encroaching upon trout that thrive in colder headwaters.
Dan Vermillion, chairman of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission and owner of a local fly fishing guide company, reported that smallmouth were being caught along stretches of the Yellowstone River which were 1,000 feet higher in elevation than previously recorded. Last summer, a parasite caused a massive fish kill in the Yellowstone. The primary reasons for the outbreak: "near-record low [water] flows and warm water temperatures."
Today, many anglers still attribute poor river conditions to bad luck, rather than a changing environment. Climate change awareness is growing, however, as occurrences happen more frequently. As it does, outdoor destinations will end up with fewer customers as visitors shift their travel plans elsewhere.
Certainly, local actions can mitigate some impacts from climate change. In fact, the Northern Adaptation Partnership, a collaborative effort that includes 16 National Forests and three National Parks across Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, has created a comprehensive plan (PDF) to do just that. Mitigation efforts along local streams include restoring floodplains, reducing habitat fragmentation and increasing tree shade adjacent to streams.
Despite these efforts, most fishing outfitters and guides will remain largely dependent on local conditions for their livelihood, and have limited ways to mitigate the impact. One thing that outfitters can do is to educate their customers as to how climate change is affecting local ecosystems. In fact, such efforts could be quite effective, as studies suggest that "perceived personal experiences" with climate change have a greater influence on consumer attitudes than even previously held beliefs.
Of course, some may see such a move as risky as it might discourage some visitors from returning. But, it is equally probable that it will prompt more people to visit places such as Montana before outdoor conditions get decidedly worse.