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Editorial: Ski areas must adapt or die

Last winter, fewer people visited the nation’s ski areas that at any time in the past 20 years. Half of 100 resorts surveyed opened later than normal, and 48 percent of them closed early. This winter may not be any snowier. The past decade has been the warmest on record, and temperature increases and the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving them show no sign of abating. That could doom the ski industry, and the tourism and recreation economies that depend on it, according to a new study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the group Protect Our Winter.

Two messages should be taken from their report: Everything within reason that can be done to slow the warming should be done. And for ski resorts and their communities, it’s a case of adapt or die.

The average winter temperature in northern New Hampshire is already nearly 2 degrees warmer than it was a generation ago. If winter temperatures increase another 2 to 4 degrees as predicted, the director of the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo in Ontario says that no Connecticut or Massachusetts ski area will be around 30 years from now. Only seven of New Hampshire’s 18 resorts, he predicts, will survive. The further south the resort, the more likely its demise, a conclusion that should be food for thought for residents of Francestown, Henniker, Gilmanton and New London. Nordic ski areas, which typically lack the ability to make artificial snow, will be hit especially hard. Concord city officials who want to make better use of the municipal golf course by offering winter skiing and skating should have a Plan B.

Many resorts have already begun to make the investments necessary to become year-round destinations. Those investments, if properly vetted, should be encouraged, perhaps through decisions not to tax the added property value created by the investment for a period of years. Here’s why:

According to the NRDC/UNH analysis, the nation’s $12.2 billion winter tourism industry lost $1 billion and 27,000 jobs over the past decade. Visits to New Hampshire ski areas over roughly the same time period, fell by 17 percent, in part because the need to make artificial snow contributed to an increase in the cost of lift tickets. The hit to state and local economies, and to tax revenue, was similarly large. What, after all, does the taxable value of slope-side hotels condominiums become if the slopes are bare, say, 300 days per year?

Artificial snow has kept many Eastern ski resorts in business. But to make or retain artificial snow, it has to be cold and the precipitation that does fall should be snow, not rain. That’s not going to happen if the average winter temperature continues to rise. To keep visitors coming when the snows are gone, ski areas have installed pools; opened water parks; added mountain bike runs, zip lines and mountain coasters; and built conference centers and golf courses. As yet, no New Hampshire resort has given up on Mother Nature and covered a slope with a synthetic snow substitute, but we expect that to happen. The Waterville Valley Academy, which is separate from the ski area down the road, installed a surface designed to mimic snow on a training slope last year. It allows competitive skiers and snowboarders to train all year long, to slide down the synthetic snow, go off a jump, perform stunts, and land on a giant air bag. Viewers who go to the academy’s website, gowva.org, may be witnessing the future of winter sports in a warmer world.

The state should NOT be in the ski area business. The state should not be competing with private enterprise. Cannon should be leased to a private operator just like Mt Sunapee. This optimizes revenue while limiting exposure to financial losses.

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