A Snowball’s Chance
As global temperatures rise, the New England ski industry is in danger of totally melting away—and sooner than you think.
Now, it’s the remaining midsize mom-and-pop mountains that are most in danger. Blandford Ski Area, in western Massachusetts, is one such high-risk spot. Opened in 1936, Blandford is the oldest continually operating, club-owned ski area in North America. Every member is a partial owner, and therefore has an obligation to contribute some of their time during the winter months, helping with upkeep, ticket sales, rentals, and running the lift. Most of the people who ski Blandford live within an hour’s drive and bring their entire family each time they go, which can be as often as five times a week. But just because kids learn the sport at Blandford doesn’t mean they continue skiing there as adults. “We joke that all the big ski areas owe us a buck for every lift ticket they sell, because we ship them our kids,” said Jay Pagluica, a former president and board member at Blandford who still hangs around as the hill’s unofficial grandfather figure.
In the ’60s, there was a waitlist for Blandford’s 5,000 ski-club spots—the rope tows could only handle so much traffic. Now membership is half that. Costs went up when Blandford installed snowmaking technology in the ’80s, and ever since it’s been a struggle to pay for the mountain’s regular maintenance while keeping tickets low enough for locals to afford. “We’ve got to have snow on the mountain to get open,” Pagluica said. “And the windows to make snow are getting smaller and smaller.” When I asked Pagluica if the resort had a five-year plan, he grew silent: “We just want to open next year.”
As smaller ski areas went out of business, the mountains that had money to invest in snowmaking ramped up operations. And if their costs were being driven up by churning out all that powder, they initially found more than enough ways to make it back: Mountains were rapidly turning themselves into luxury resorts. Beginning in the late ’70s, Maine’s Sunday River, run by industry mogul Les Otten, led the charge, shelling out for high-speed chairlifts, wider trails, a base lodge, restaurants, and hotels. Other resorts quickly followed suit. Within a few years, New England’s sleepy ski hills had grown into five-star resorts, effectively turning the sport into the multibillion-dollar winter tourism industry we recognize today.
Now, as temperatures rise, the industry is experiencing another shift, and doing its best to adapt. Many mountains are going green—not so much to save the environment, but to save money. Snowmaking, after all, is very expensive, and the need for it is only growing. Sunday River’s snowmaking system, for instance, covers 92 percent of the resort’s 616 acres. The mountain’s owners already pour $500,000 to $1 million every year into new energy-efficient snow guns, which they hope will offset the high costs of snow production. “It’s incredibly important to us to keep our system as fresh and efficient as possible,” says Darcy Morse, the mountain’s communications director. “Snowmaking is so much of what Sunday River is known for and does.”
The mountain is cutting costs and energy in other ways too: It installed low-flow showers and toilets to save water, a wastewater treatment center to reduce runoff, and introduced hornpout fish into their lagoons to decrease sludge.
Medium-size ski areas like Massachusetts’ Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort and Wachusett Mountain Ski Area are also coming up with environmentally sustainable, energy-efficient solutions to adapt to warming temperatures. In 2007, Jiminy installed a massive wind turbine, which now provides one-third of the resort’s power. “Not everyone needs a wind turbine,” says Jim Van Dyke, the mountain’s vice president of environmental sustainability. But they do need, he continued, the money and will to invest in expensive, but cost-saving, measures.
Wachusett, located just over an hour west of Boston, has also taken the green route to save money. Over the past several years, the resort has installed two 1.5-megawatt wind turbines to cover 40 percent of the resort town’s energy needs. The mountain converts 100 percent of its cooking oil into biodiesel to fuel its five snowcat grooming vehicles. Wachusett’s most unique and innovative “greening” mechanism is capturing the heat thrown off by their snowmakers and using it to help warm the base lodge. Operators also market the mountain as a multi-seasonal resort. By offering festivals, weddings, races, and concerts in the summer and fall, Wachusett makes about 10 percent of its revenue in the off-season.
In season, though, the ski industry has essentially developed into an arms race to see who can develop the most efficient snow making technology. Wachusett’s president, Jeff Crowley, calls himself a snow farmer: “We have to make hay when the sun shines,” he says. Wachusett has spent half a million dollars per year on snowmaking over the past decade. But with the sun shining brighter and warmer than ever before, at what point does the whole proposition simply become too expensive?
It’s a prospect that some mountain loyalists simply cannot bring themselves to confront—even as the industry evaporates around them. Crowley admits that he’s preparing for change, and is working hard to stay optimistic, even if it means indulging in some wishful thinking. “We have our fingers crossed, hoping that maybe we’re all wrong about this stuff,” he says. “Sure, the climate is changing, but I don’t think it’s going to be drastic enough that we’re going to be without snow all winter. I find myself listening more to the guys who are saying all of this climate-change stuff is not necessarily true.” For Crowley, optimism has become a coping mechanism. “We kind of have to put our blinders on,” he says. “Otherwise we would just want to sell our resort.”