With global warming comes the rising of the snow line here in Utah. While snow will likely keep falling throughout our lifetimes, the elevation at which it remains on the ground in Utah is likely to rise permanently. We’re in a desert here after all, and snow doesn’t like the desert very much. This season has shown us what the future could look like for the foreseeable future: one has to drive a substantial distance up any Central Wasatch canyon to actually reach snow. Recent years have offered similar conditions.
A raised snow line is convenient for those who dislike shoveling snow off their driveways. It is inconvenient for those who like to recreate on snow, as their ability to spread out becomes hampered. As the remaining snow is found only at higher elevations, available snow recreation acreage diminishes at an accelerated rate. That’s because a conical shaped mountain offers the greatest acreage at its base, and offers the least as one nears the summit. See picture.
Since it’s a reasonably applicable metaphor, picture a sinking pirate ship from the old days. Imagine that, in a huge and rare display of magnanimity, all the people have made it off the boat onto another pirate vessel. As the boat sinks, all the rats – known to commonly infest ships of old – scurry to the end of the ship that remains above water. This effect is obvious, because rats don’t like to drown any more than people do.
As the ship continues slowly sinking, there is less and less of it above water upon which to cling for life. Not only is there a tremendous decrease in deck space as compared to a fully floating ship, but now every single rat is clinging for life in this decreased space. Life, short and tenuous though the rats sense it is, very soon becomes pretty uncomfortable. It’s crowded, tempers are flaring, no single rat can get a good selfie picture because there are 45 other rats in the picture, etc. You know, real world concerns here. Death is imminent.
Now imagine that there was one final life boat left on this sinking ship. Some of the rats eye it up and crawl inside, intent on salvation. Suddenly a few pirates burst on the scene, dump all the rats out of this last boat, jump in, and row away. Now all the rats are piled deep upon one another as the last bit of the sinking ship finally submerges. They let go and swim to their doom, one by one, as land is too far away to reach.
And thus it is with the Wasatch. We the people watch as Mother Nature decreases the available amount of snow recreation acreage. Maybe next year will be better, and there will be more low elevation snow. This doesn’t matter however, because the global warming trend is clear, and it’s here. It’s not going away.
Adding insult to this damage, ski corporations step in to reduce the acreage even further via the ‘One Wasatch’ measure. This would remove more real estate from the available public recreation lands, upon which the resorts would build out chairlift systems to connect one ‘barely profitable’ ski area to another.
I bring up the ‘barely profitable’ angle because it’s a term that’s commonly bandied about when ski area executives want something. A few years back, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, known as JHMR, needed a new tram. The old one had provided service for 40 years or so, some new and very expensive condos were going in, and it just wouldn’t do to have an old tram as the backdrop to this egregiously priced real estate. (Keep in mind that the condos go for 7 figures, not 6.)
So JHMR attempted to get state funding from Wyoming to help pay for the tram, claiming they were barely profitable. I laugh to myself every time I remember that the state shot them down. The last of the old West, indeed! In the end, JHMR got the tram built just fine without state funding. And last I checked, they haven’t missed any seasons operating as a going concern. As further fodder, note that some affordable housing units went up around that time on the far side of the JHMR parking lot, constructed on land valued at nearly $1,000,000 an acre.
Closer to home, the same trick (a wolf in sheep’s clothing) is used to sway votes, Politicians Involved in Making Proper Decisions (aka, PIMP’D), and public opinion. Here is one among many phrases to watch for: “We’re ‘barely profitable,’ a lift system that interconnects various struggling resorts is the answer.” This was one aspect of the logic I saw used to justify the Ski Link proposal, which, with much fuss and public outcry, was finally shot down last year.
The theme of Ski Link was thus: We take your public land from you and sell it to a foreign company, who will then charge you to use this land. This is good for us, the ski areas involved, as well as the politicians we feted. It is not good for you, Joe and Jane Public, and we don’t care. We have money, so please shut up. Oh, and get off our land. It was your land, but it’s ours now.
The theme of ‘One Wasatch’ is much the same, though the scope is larger by far. It will reduce the amount of snow covered land upon which the public can recreate free of charge. One Wasatch will have other obvious consequences, too. Basically, all the same ones that Ski Link would have produced, except in this case magnified by the larger number of lifts and land mass involved: watershed degradation, interference with animal habitats, not a viable transportation solution, etc.
As icing on the cake, the whole package of One Wasatch will likely be wrapped up in the ‘We’re barely profitable’ argument. ‘If we go out of business, Jobs will be Lost, and Fear will be created!’ Creating fear is how many of those in charge get things done in America these days. Creating the Fear of Fear? That’s just genius at play.
Don’t fall for this rhetoric. Utah has the #1 economy in the nation right now. If a ski area in Utah fails and closes shop, it’s extremely likely that someone somewhere will see the potential to operate it in a profitable fashion and will buy it. If not, then it shouldn’t have been in business in the first place.
Jobs, skiers, and snowboarders will simply migrate to other resorts in the meantime. That is the nature of a functioning capitalist system. It is absurd to think that if a ski and snowboard area is struggling now, building a new chairlift, shuttling riders to other resorts via chairlift, and increasing skiable acreage is somehow going to make a positive impact to the bottom line.
Another tactic I’ve heard being employed involves undercounting. The PIMP’D (aka: Politicians Involved in Making Proper Decisions) listen to people who pretend to know how many backcountry users hit the Wasatch throughout the winter. The fact is, no one knows that number. But the user numbers presented when Ski Link was on the docket were exceedingly low, by all accounts.
One way to help instill some truth and accuracy to future backcountry user numbers is to make yourself known. Join the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, among whose goals is a more accurate representation of the true number of backcountry users in the Wasatch. Join if you use the Wasatch backcountry, even if you don’t live here in Utah. Think about it; the vast majority of Utah resort skiers are from out of town, too. When ski areas present their user numbers, they’re certainly counting out-of-town visitors.
From both in and out-of-town snowshoers to skiers to splitboarders to mountaineers to sledders to hikers to snow runners to wing fliers to fat tire bike riders to winter campers to photographers to ski base jumpers to snow ballerinas to snowpeople builders to ice climbers to cross country skiers to avalanche predictors to UDOT missile launchers to snowball fighters, the number of Central Wasatch backcountry users is vast. –We are legion.–
As the snow elevation level rises and yet another threat to remaining snow covered public lands rears its head, don’t be like a rat on a sinking ship, left with nothing.
Just as with all issues and public concerns, gather your facts and think them through to figure out what makes sense. People on both sides of this latest Wasatch snowsports issue will have much to say to try to sway your decision making. Think. Think about long term impacts and consequences, much as you do when making decisions about your personal safety. Much is at stake here, yet again.