Montana Ski Areas and Climate Change
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
More than a dozen Montana ski areas pride themselves on having some of the best snow conditions in the nation with the least amount of skier congestion. The industry is a fundamental part of a booming statewide outdoor economy.
“It is a growing industry,” says Bonnie Hickey, sustainability director and ski and snowboard course coordinator for the Bridger Bowl Ski Area just outside of Bozeman. “Ski areas are seeing increases in participation and the quality of the experience is ever improving.”
The economic health of ski areas is critical to community stability, Hickey explains.
“They balance out other seasonal industries, providing a continuation of paychecks for workers and winter traffic for lodging, restaurants, stores and more.”
A Booming Industry
Montana’s outdoor recreation industry accounts for $7.1 billion in consumer spending and for more than 71,000 jobs, according to the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation. It is the second-largest sector of the state’s economy, behind only agriculture, and snow-related activities make up a significant chunk of Montana’s outdoor-tourism industry, contributing about $81 million to the state’s gross domestic product, according to Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman-based research firm.
But the booming industry is preparing for serious changes. And the National Ski Association of America lists “climate change” as the number-one threat to the snow-sports industry today.
“The business of snow-sports, and outdoor recreation as a whole, relies for success upon a stable climate,” says Adrienne Saia Isaac, the National Ski Areas Association Marketing and Communications Director.
“The tourism dollars from outdoor recreation support many rural economies throughout the nation, and it’s important to protect our resources and ensure the future of our communities” she adds.
Scientific reports of diminishing snowpacks have ski areas in Montana concerned, and, as is the case all across the country, they are taking action.
Released in 2017, the U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment provided a comparison of 1986–2016 temperatures to those for 1901–1960. The comparison showed an increase in average temperature across 95 percent of the nation’s land surface; the temperature increases have been most significant in winter, 1.5°F or higher in most places. The number of cool nights (below freezing) has also declined, and in much of the western U.S., the decrease totals about two weeks, the study found.
While some ski areas in Montana shy away from the term “climate change” because of its political implications, others are openly committed to tackling the issues on a broader scale.
“Snow is our crop, so we are always paying attention to temperature and precipitation,” explains Riley Polumbus, public relations manager at Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Those in the industry who consider themselves snow farmers are worried that climate change could kill their crop.
Plotting a Course
“There is a worldwide effort among ski resorts to address climate change,” says Bridger Bowl ski area ski-school coordinator Bonnie Hickey.
Bridger Bowl, the community-owned nonprofit ski area near Bozeman, has been recognized nationally for its efforts to address climate change. Bridger was featured in National Geographic’s “Geotourism Mapguide” for its sustainable building practices. Bridger was also the first ski area in the state to host a Global Sustainable Tourism Council training event, in October of 2019.
“Some ski areas in Montana, especially Bridger Bowl, have been taking a leadership role in this area for a long time and deserve a lot of credit,” says Ciche Pitcher, President of the Discovery Ski Area near Phillipsburg in southeastern Montana. He points out that
Montana ski areas have been discussing efforts to reduce emissions for more than a decade now.
In the fall of 2019, a lack of early snow caused most Montana ski areas areas, scheduled or not, to open in December. Discovery Ski area opens on Thanksgiving when weather conditions allow.
“I think a lot of people want to talk about the ski industry seeing a crisis in continuation, when winter is a little slower to get started,” says Pitcher. “But since the early 2000s, every time we miss our Thanksgiving opening, we see a renewed energy to respond.”
While scientific data shows temperatures rising globally and snowpack decreasing, Pitcher says Discovery hasn’t seen a huge difference in opening dates. “We make our Thanksgiving opening day 60 percent of the time. This has been pretty consistent since we started running Discovery in the early 1980s.”
Adjusting to Impacts
The biggest impacts of climate change at Discovery Ski Resort, Pitcher says, can be seen in challenges brought about by extreme weather conditions.
“While we have not seen much change in the high and low temps for the year, we have seen a big increase in volatility,” he reports. “We used to occasionally get rain in the winter and occasionally get 20 below zero temperatures. Now we see that the weather can change from unseasonably warm to extremely cold in a matter of days. This does force us to react more quickly in making operational decisions.”
Randy Elliot, Bridger Bowl general manager from 2004 to 2018, says milder temperatures leave the ski area with higher density snowfall or fewer “cold smoke” days.
“We seem to be receiving as much water, just in the form of wetter snow and increase in rain events,” Elliot says.
Bridger is also dealing with more extreme weather conditions, according to Elliot. “Because the temperatures are increasing, the storms can have more energy and stronger winds.”
Whitefish Mountain Resort’s public-relations representative, Riley Polumbus, says her resort stakeholders respond to climate issues from a business perspective, rather than a political perspective.
“We’ve learned to adapt to the conditions of our climate and make business decisions based on what is best for us from a cost-benefit analysis,” she says.
In the past, Whitefish resort would aim to open at Thanksgiving because of public pressure to be the first resort to open but the early-season conditions typically aren’t very good, Polumbus explains. Whitefish Resort now opens in early December, when the conditions are better, and they are able to offer a better product.
“It costs a lot to run the ski area,” Polumbus says, “If only a few people show up for one run, and then leave and don’t come back until mid-December, we’ve wasted money and energy to be open for those weeks.”
The Bottom Line
Because ski areas are expensive to operate, decision makers always look for ways to save on expenses. Many of the decisions Montana ski areas have made to be sustainable turn out to be fiscally favorable as well, report representatives from the Whitefish, Big Sky, Bridger Bowl and Discovery ski areas.
“Building resiliency makes economic sense as a business,” says Bridger Bowl’s Bonnie Hickey. “Many of the activities we engage in to improve our performance in relation to reducing our green-house gases are things we would do anyway, because they pay back in energy efficiency. Some ski-area efforts happen by default – new grooming machines, for example, are going to be more energy efficient and cleaner than old grooming equipment,” she explains.
Discovery Ski Area’s Ciche Pitcher says he and his colleagues have been working to make their chairlifts more energy-efficient. They’ve invested more than $700,000 in the past six years to convert chairlifts from DC power to AC power in an effort to improve efficiency and to reduce the impact on emissions from energy production. Discovery is also beginning to make investments in solar-energy production by making their buildings more energy-efficient and reusing building materials whenever possible, he reports.
Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Polumbus says her ski area also reuses equipment as much as possible. Two of the last three chairlifts at the resort were purchased used, and the third was an under-utilized chairlift that they moved to a more useful location, she says.
A lack of snow at ski areas can cause safety hazards and force skiers to stay at home. But ski areas say they try not to rely too much on snowmaking, because the practice is not only expensive; it consumes a lot of energy and water.
“At White Mountain Resort, we focus on areas that need it the most, and make snow only when conditions are also sustainable – meaning the conditions are not only good for making it; they are good for the days after we make it, so that it doesn’t melt away,” Polumbus explains,
Ski resorts in Whitefish and Big Sky say they use technology to make grooming the ski runs work more efficiently. “Grooming is another area that uses a lot of fuel and expense, and we find that we can deliver quality grooming with a modest crew,” Polumbus adds.
Big Sky Resort’s mountain operation team reports using advanced GPS systems to optimize their grooming routes, limit idle times, and make the most effective use of fuel as possible. Many Montana ski areas are also adopting everyday practices to reduce the amount of materials they use. At Whitefish Resort’s Riley Polumbus agrees. “More and more we favor digital communications over printed materials.”
Big Sky Resort is one of several ski areas that are implementing sustainability initiatives in their dining and kitchen facilities. This season, Big Sky will debut a composting pilot program in their kitchens, to divert food waste from landfills to a local composting facility in Bozeman. Through the course of the winter, Big Sky expects to divert more than one ton of waste from landfills, with the goal of expanding the program in future years.
The resort has also eliminated single-use plates, bowls and silverware, by serving meals in washable reusable dishware, and their take-out containers will all be compostable.
The Climate Challenge
This fall, Big Sky Resort hired a sustainability specialist to inventory their greenhouse-gas portfolio, and to develop green policies and initiatives that emphasize the proper use of environmental resources. “As we approach 2025,” explains public-relations manager Stacie Mesuda, “Big Sky Resort is taking steps to strengthen its commitment to the environment and to shed light on the initiatives it has pursued over the last 47 years.”
That commitment includes joining the National Ski Area Association’s Climate Challenge. More than 45 resorts across the United States and Canada are participating in The Climate Challenge. Montana’s Big Sky Resort is one of nine new challengers for the 2019-20 season; Bridger Bowl ski area completed their first inventory for the Climate Challenge last season. Bridger Bowl and Big Sky are the only two Montana ski areas who have joined the Climate Challenge so far, but more are sure to follow.
“Each resort is taking innovative strides to take responsibility for carbon emissions and promote environmental protection,” says Stacie Mesuda.
The National Ski Area Association has introduced The Climate Challenge to provide technical support and to create a public-reporting platform for ski areas that are tackling climate change head-on, by reducing their carbon footprint and advocating for climate change solutions.
“The Climate Challenge is a rigorous program of data collection and inventory of greenhouse gases, target setting, reduction efforts, on site projects and reporting audited by an independent third party,” reports Bonnie Hickey, Bridger Bowl’s sustainability director.
Bridger has made serious strides towards becoming more sustainable and to lessen that particular resort’s impact on the environment. In addition to incorporating many of the sustainability measures reported by other Montana ski areas, Bridger Bowl has worked with Onsite Energy and Northwestern Energy to build a 50kWh solar project adjacent to their mid-mountain lodge this fall.
The solar project is net-metered and will roll back their meter an equivalent amount of kWh in order to run the lifts in their beginner area, make the snow in the beginner area, heat the warming hut and power the building that houses the ski patrol and race programs, explains Hickey. The ski area has also changed many of their lighting fixtures to CFL, and is in the process of upgrading to LED lighting in the Saddle Peak Lodge and Deer Park Chalet.
“We also have just completed installation of an innovative, on-site vertical flow water-treatment wetlands, to handle our effluent in a manner that not only provides treatment but acts as an additional carbon sink,” Hickey explains.
Bridger Bowl also offers a bus program that last year transported more than 24,000 employees and guests last season. A leased lot at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds also provides opportunities for guests to carpool. “It is a big investment but one that pays off in guest convenience, less traffic on the roads and parking lots, and saves over 57 metric tons of CO2e,” Hickey reports. (CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, is a standard unit for measuring carbon footprints.)
“One of the best aspects of The Climate Challenge program,” says Adrienne Saia Issac, marketing director for the National Ski Areas Association, “is the collaboration among our participants. Climate Challengers learn from their peers, hearing about both the challenges and the successes of their individual efforts. They can then create programs tailored to their state, region, public-utility agreement and business model.”
Saia Isaac adds that actions being taken onsite at ski areas are not only reducing the footprint of those operations, but also are serving to inspire guests to take similar actions in their everyday lives. “To truly affect change and move towards a healthier climate, we’re going to need all the solutions we can find. The Climate Challenge is just one way the ski industry can work together, to share information and to move forward.”
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
Extensive information about climate change and the interrelated aspects of the winter outdoor recreation and tourism industry is available from a baseline report co-authored in 2012 by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters titled, “Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States.”
In the report, scenarios and challenges are outlined along with projections and responses for the increased climate variability resorts continue to experience around the country and around the world.
A current report from Protect Our Winters, “The Economic Contributions of Winter Sports in a Changing Economy,” provides even greater context for the challenges the snow sports industries will face in the coming decades as the climate continues to warm and climate variability increases. General climate information is available at www.noaa.gov/climate.
Photographic images from visitmontana.com.