In an era of partisan gridlock, saving winter sports brings bipartisan consensus

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 12-26-2022 4:49 PM

If the United States Congress gave out an award to the top skiing enthusiast, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster would be one of the most deserving recipients.

Skiing has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember. Her father, Malcolm McLane – a former mayor of Concord – was one of the founders of Wildcat Mountain Ski Area in Pinkham Notch where she’d ski every weekend. She continued the tradition with her own kids who are now grown.

Elected to a sixth term in Congress this November to represent New Hampshire’s 2nd District, Kuster plans to continue her work advocating for winter sports, something that’s brought so much joy and excitement to her family for decades.

Since 2014, the Democrat has served as the co-chair for the Bipartisan Ski & Snowboard Caucus, a group of 30 members of the House that focuses on issues related to winter sports industries. Topics include the impacts of climate change as well as other lesser-covered issues related to the ski industry like immigration and affordable housing.

Her work with co-chair Representative John Curtis, a Utah Re publican, and the rest of the caucus reflects a growing consensus that climate change is increasingly having negative impacts across the country, including on winter sports that are so foundational to the New Hampshire way of life.

“I had met a number of colleagues when I first went to Congress who enjoyed skiing or skiing was a big part of their economy as well,” Kuster said. “It felt like a good bipartisan issue for me, a way to connect with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on issues that are important to my constituency.”

According to the National Ski Areas Association, skiing and snowboarding industries contributed more than $55 billion in retail spending to the U.S. economy during the 2019-20 season. That included over $1.3 billion in Utah and about $1 billion in New Hampshire.

“He agrees with us that we need to address climate change, and the ski industry has been very clear that this is a priority,” Kuster said of Curtis. “What it’s meant is (that) we’ve had more candid discussions about climate change (and) about the impact on the ski industry.”

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As a climate scientist who spends a lot of time researching snow cover, Elizabeth Burakowski is well aware of how warming temperatures have influenced these seasonal patterns.

Research from her and other climate scientists has found that over the last century, winters in New Hampshire have become shorter and less cold. Days with sub-freezing temperatures are less common, and compared to about 100 years ago, there are about 20 fewer cold, snowy days across New England. That lack of snow creates one of the key hurdles for winter sports.

“As we look toward the future, it’s pretty clear that we’re not only going to just have a decline in the number of natural snow-covered days, but it’s also going to become much more challenging to even make snow,” said Burakowski, who’s a research assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire.

However, progress can be made.

“It’s become clear that taking action – especially bipartisan action – does slow the pace of warming, based on climate models that we’ve analyzed,” she said.

Across New Hampshire, winter sports enthusiasts have likely felt the effects already, even if they haven’t realized it yet. Ski trails have become more limited, ski areas are more crowded and there are just fewer days with ideal skiing conditions.

This crowding at ski areas is in large part due to the ski season becoming more condensed. As Jessyca Keeler, the president of Ski New Hampshire, explained, snowmaking used to begin before Thanksgiving. Now, a lot of areas can’t start until after the late-November holiday because the conditions simply aren’t conducive to making snow.

“The things that the scientists are seeing are definitely things that we’re experiencing,” she said.

In addition to evaluating how climate change is affecting winter sports, the Ski & Snowboard Caucus has also looked at other nuanced issues like immigration visas and affordable housing and how they relate to winter sports businesses.

Regarding immigration, Kuster said the ski industry relies on workers that come to the U.S. on H-2B visas (for temporary work that’s typically seasonally-based) or J-1 visas (student-workers). Because of restrictions implemented during the pandemic, there weren’t as many people to work at ski areas, resulting in a shortage of workers.

And the worker shortage isn’t the only challenge; there also need to be enough affordable places for those workers to live.

“That’s something that’s an interest of mine generally in New Hampshire, is increasing access to affordable housing in rural communities,” Kuster said. “The ski communities can be an example of how we can work on that, make progress.”

Meanwhile, Kuster’s also hoping Congress can pass the Ski Hill Resources for Economic Development Act (SHRED Act), that would let ski areas on National Forest land keep more of the fees they charge instead of paying them to the National Forest Service. This would allow those areas to have more money to spend on hiring/training staff, maintaining their trails and other expenses that have been caused by climate-related changes.

The bill has broad bipartisan support, but it has yet to pass the House.

“Having agreement across party lines about the impacts of climate change on multi-billion dollar industries is important,” said Burakowski. “It’s important for those industries, but it’s also important for the people that are benefiting at a much more local level.”

A starting point for action

The challenges perpetuated by a rapidly changing climate surely extend well beyond winter sports in New Hampshire, just as the people who can help address these challenges extend beyond the 30 members of the Ski & Snowboard Caucus.

But this small group of elected representatives can provide some hope and – at the very least – devote more attention to these winter sports industries that so many across the country enjoy. It also serves as a point of optimism, however small, that the broader climate crisis can be addressed.

“A big way to start conversations about climate change is to find that connection on shared values,” Burakowski said. “And in New England, there’s a lot of folks that enjoy skiing. … I’m a climate scientist, I’m a skier, I’m also a parent, and I’m teaching my kids how to snowboard. If I can connect with other folks who might not see the climate issue as a problem yet and explain to them where I come from and connect with them on raising young skiers, I think that can be an important starting point for action.”

And as we approach the snowiest time of the year, Kuster continues her focus on doing whatever she can in Congress to keep the winter sports industries viable in New Hampshire.

“(We’re) just trying to make the case that the ski industry is really important,” she said. “Not just to our economy but to our way of life.”

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