This post was written by Lauren Bass ’20. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
During my lunch hour recently, I skied Goat, one of Mt. Mansfield’s famed Front Four trails. For a few precious moments before making my descent, I gazed across Stowe Mountain Resort (where I am very proudly employed) to admire stunning Spruce Peak. In the distance, she glistened a triumphant, sparkling white thanks to a fresh coat of snow. Sadly, there is strong evidence that this vista will become increasingly rare in the future.
The snow sports industry in New England may have just hit middle age. That’s according to reports that predict only four out of 14 major ski destinations in New England will be viable by 2100 due to warmer, shorter winters.
Stowe Mountain Resort, the historically rich and iconic “Ski Capital of the East,” will need to rely heavily on snowmaking if it’s going to survive. Stowe (as the resort is colloquially known and not to be confused with the town where it’s located) is comprised of Vermont’s tallest summit, Mt. Mansfield, and it’s neighboring little sister, Spruce Peak. Having just celebrated its 87th year in operation, Stowe may have about as many years left before climate change profoundly impacts one of America’s most storied ski destinations.
Stowe has nurtured and inspired some of the greatest achievements and economic developments in the ski and snowboard industry. Its first trails were cut on Mt. Mansfield by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. A year later, the Mt. Mansfield Ski Patrol was founded, the precursor of what we now know as the National Ski Patrol. And by 1940, Sepp Ruschp, the legendary Austrian ski instructor who also coached UVM’s and Norwich University’s ski teams, established the Mt. Mansfield Ski School at Stowe, which is still one of the most highly regarded training programs in the country. For those who enjoy snowboarding, the late Jake Burton Carpenter took turns on Mansfield and will be remembered as one of the Town of Stowe’s most notable and beloved residents with his wife and business partner, Donna. Today, Burton Snowboards is one of Vermont’s most celebrated brands with a global presence spanning across the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
Meanwhile, Stowe Mountain Resort, which was recently acquired by Vail Resorts, attracts ski and snowboard enthusiasts from around the world and supports the livelihoods of thousands of Vermonters both on and off the property. The town’s picturesque village of independently owned boutiques, restaurants, inns, and myriad sports shops owe much of their success to the mountain. Builders, architects, lawyers, and property managers are sustained by Stowe’s robust real estate market that is largely driven by out-of-towners seeking vacation homes. To put it in perspective, a whopping 17% of Vermont properties are second homes, which are often owned by outdoor enthusiasts, skiers, and snowboarders. Stowe School District is one of the best in the state, thanks to high home values bringing in substantial property taxes that have enriched the town and its public education system.
Beyond the business world, Mt. Mansfield is also home to some of Vermont’s last remaining acres of Arctic-Alpine Tundra. This fragile ecosystem supports countless flora and fauna that are unique to the area. As the length of winters recede, so will the delicate balance of life existing high above the rest of Vermont.
All of this could melt away right before our eyes, drastically changing the future of Vermont, both economically and ecologically. As more greenhouse gases are released into the environment, we will likely be confronted with the loss of one of Vermont’s greatest assets: its long, cold, snowy winters…including the $900 million in direct winter spending generated by the state’s ski and snowboard destinations and related businesses.
In response to looming profit losses, business closures, and dwindling resort locations, industry advocates, such as Protect Our Winters (POW) and the National Ski Areas Association, are lobbying federal, state, and local governments to enact environmental policies to slow or reverse the progression of average rising temperatures. Meanwhile, the International Ski Federation has also signed on to the UN Climate Change Initiative. Vail, which is by far the largest ski resort operator worldwide, has initiated its “Commitment to Zero” via its Epic Promise Foundation. By 2030, it has pledged that all of its properties will operate using zero-waste and carbon-neutral technologies. Burton Snowboards, which was recently designated as a B-Corporation and is actively accounting for its sustainability goals, has partnered with the Epic Promise Foundation when it hosts the annual U.S. Open Snowboard Championships at Vail. Since 2017 it has operated the event carbon-neutral with limited waste.
The fact remains, however, that we’re facing an uphill battle. 2019 witnessed the highest level of carbon emissions to date. The past decade has also been our warmest in recorded history, with the most elevated global temperatures occurring over the past five years. Furthermore, enacting pro-environmental policies continues to be a battle. The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord and the rise of climate change skeptics in leadership positions across governments and corporations have hindered or even eliminated environmental and climate protections worldwide.
Meanwhile, right here in Vermont, our ski and snowboard industry is at a precipice.
After taking in the glory of Spruce Peak, I edged my tips over Goat and made the first of many turns down the fall line to the base of Mt. Mansfield. Along the way, I thought of the pioneers, entrepreneurs, and the incredible businesses and value they created. Could they have even imagined what our winters are facing? And are we truly equipped to conquer the fragile, uncertain, and ungroomed trail that lays ahead?
Allen, Anne Wallace. “Study: Vermont Is No. 2 Nationwide for Second Home Ownership.” VTDigger, 6 Aug. 2019, vtdigger.org/2019/08/05/study-vermont-is-no-2-nationwide-for-second-home-ownership/.
Brandon, Heather. “Most Ski Resorts in Warmer New England May Disappear By 2100.” Connecticut Public Radio, 7 Feb. 2014, www.wnpr.org/post/most-ski-resorts-warmer-new-england-may-disappear-2100.
Freedman, Andrew. “The 2010s Will Go down in History as Earth’s Warmest.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Dec. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2019/12/05/current-decade-will-go-down-history-earths-warmest/.
Imster, Eleanor, and Deborah Byrd. “Atmospheric CO2 Hits Record High in May 2019.” EarthSky, EarthSky.org, 17 June 2019, earthsky.org/earth/atmospheric-co2-record-high-may-2019.
“Vermont Ski Industry Rebounds to Nearly 4 Million Visits.” Vermont Business Magazine, Vermont Business Magazine, 15 June 2017, vermontbiz.com/news/june/vermont-ski-industry-rebounds-nearly-4-million-visits.
Wobus, Cameron, et al. “Projected Climate Change Impacts on Skiing and Snowmobiling: A Case Study of the United States.” Global Environmental Change, Pergamon, 3 May 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378016305556.