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Environment & Science

Mountain development, climate change, and California's ski industry

Squaw Valley, 2012
Squaw Valley, 2012

Hey, it's finally snowing in the Sierra Nevada!

I started thinking about mountain development politics in California recently, and I have to admit I've checked out a little. I was one of those high school athletes who signed a paper agreeing not to risk my knee ligaments during winter vacation, after I was a kid who bombed the black diamonds. Then I grew up to be a poor public radio reporter. But in a thin snow year, the ski industry and the people who watch it find plenty of time to think about how the mountains are run.

Earlier this winter, one corporation came to own two of those places I skied in Tahoe growing up. The impact of Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley "joining forces" has been pretty much exclusively discussed in terms of lift ticket pricesAs the San Francisco Chronicle reported

Major corporate ownership could mean big dollar improvements. Vail has shown that with major mountain upgrades at both Heavenly and Northstar. But big improvements could translate into expensive lift tickets. Squaw has long been one of the most expensive places to ski in Tahoe, with tickets pushing $100 last year. According to the Associated Press, there are no plans for connecting the two adjacent resorts, which are separated by a single ridge.

That story also touches on increasing concern about development on this mountain, and at other mountains around the state. Tahoe's planning process seems always under scrutiny. This winter, that's happening because of a Northstar development that opponents call the largest expansion around the area since 1901. The question becomes not just whether development can happen responsibly in Tahoe. News nibblets like this make me wonder about where the ski industry is headed in California anyway.

A few years ago, there was a great LA Times story by Hugo Martin about Donner Ski Ranch, a Truckee institution that has something called "old-school Thursdays" - $15 to ski! Martin set out for Tahoe looking for the opposite of the trend in ski resorts: 

For the last 15 years or more, private equity groups and big-money corporations have been gobbling up the biggest, most popular and most profitable ski resorts, and with good reason. From 2001 to 2006, U.S. ski resorts saw revenue increase 22%. Now, nearly 1 in 3 ski trips takes place on a mountain owned by one of the four biggest resort corporations. It's a trend that some decry and others believe has saved skiing. I'm not sure how I feel.

What he found at Donner Ski Ranch was old school, indeed. The muni golf course of the ski world. A mom and pop shop where pop works the lift and every year they're legging it out; especially, I'd guess, in a year like this. 

I suspect development and ticket prices are movements in the symphony about where ski resorts are going. But to continue the metaphor, I also suspect climate change is the notation that could put the whole piece in a minor key. Global warming has entered public policy as another wrinkle in analyzing development. That's in legal requirements for planning processes. We've seen this in species pushed up to higher elevations by warming climate (did somebody say flying squirrel?). 

You can't mistake a season's worth of snow weather (or s'now snow weather) for climate change. Still, years like these have got to be serving as a wake up call to mountain operators. Ski industry folks think about how a changing climate affects the mountain as a matter of business sustainability. Aspen started that, with Congressional testimony and big programs, but California's ski operators are now too. Climate change has a forcing impact on the little guys, and that means both the little mountains and the little operators.

So the next time you buy a lift ticket in California, consider this: what do you think your mountain will look like in 5 years? in 20? What about 50?