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For Yellowstone And America, Climate Change Brings Our Moment Of Truth

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem sits at the epicenter of a huge disruption from rising temperatures. Skiing will be the first of many major casualties

Original image courtesy Colton Stiffler.  Edited by Mountain Journal staff
YOU RUMMAGE THROUGH A TRUNK IN THE ATTIC that’s been handed down across the generations and happen upon a dusty old photo album. Intrigued, you open it. Flipping through its fraying pages, you discover a series of candid poses featuring your great grandparents back in those distant years when they were roughly the same age you are now.

Something about the look in their eyes strikes a chord—a mixture, you think with hindsight, of wonderment and cluelessness. You ask yourself: what were they thinking?

Decades before you were born, these hale, frosty-faced relatives, evincing grins from their snowy past, stand in vaulted white ramparts, the curves of topography recognizable to you—and yet the landscapes rimming your home valley seem so strangely different.

But there your ancestors are: bundled contentedly against the elements, riding packed trams to the legendary powderamas of yore; ascending with their skis and snowboards to destinations like Rendezvous Bowl in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; the black diamond runs of Grand Targhee along the Wyoming-Idaho border; to the crest of Lone Peak towering over Big Sky, Montana, mugging for cellphone cameras along the ridge at Bridger Bowl and the slopes of Red Lodge.

Their snapshots offer a vicarious glimpse. Savoring what old-timers called “downhill skiing’s golden age” in the Northern Rockies, they hit the piste in late November and didn’t quit until mid-April. Then, like clockwork come springtime, they’d pull out their boats, and greet the first insect hatches on annual pilgrimages, and delight in leaving the first set of tracks by foot and bike. They convinced themselves it would always be like that. Judging by the images in front of you, it looked like they lived a charmed carefree life indeed, if you were privileged enough to have it before the changes set in.

Now in your own time it’s the latter weeks of winter in the late 2060s or what used to be called that cold-weather season. You find the notion of a “downhill ski industry” and lives ordered around nothing more than outdoor leisure to be peculiar and frankly unbelievable given misery now in the world.

On this afternoon, it’s drizzling, same as it was in late January and February; the thermometer is pushing past 60 degrees. The intermittent snow in town, which lasted a couple of weeks, disappeared more than a month ago. Tulip sprigs have been pressing out of the soil for weeks and very soon, lilac bloom.

Intrigued by the haunting white backdrops that met earlier members of your kin, you set out to find the elusive snow line where depth this time of year, according to historic records, was measured in feet.

As you wheel in a driverless autonomous car through Greater Bozeman/Gallatin Valley, population 420,000, you think nothing of the scattered subdivisions stretching for 40 miles because it’s all you’ve ever known—farmland that octogenarians say gave way to sprawl a generation before. It’s hard to fathom that the vista in front of you was ever dubbed “the valley of the flowers” by indigenous buffalo hunters and subsequently touted as the best cropland in the state by the white settlers who followed.

Dryland agriculture became unworkable in unrelenting heatwaves—square footage and real estate lots worth far more as tradable commodities than beef raised on the hoof or wheat shipped out by the bushel.

Of course, then, too, came the contentious never-ending battles over water—the years when personal green manicured lawns went away with the advent of mandatory water restrictions, when ranchers and farmers made fortunes in the water development business.

Summers with only a few days of temperatures soaring through the nineties past the century mark in your forebears’ era now broil over 90 degrees for stretches of a month or more. The haze of woodsmoke that tinged their air in July at the turn of the century wafts in now from the west two months earlier, obscuring views of the mountains on many days.

Few could’ve predicted that when extreme heat events (high temperatures routinely in the 120s) coupled with shortages of freshwater caused social unrest a thousand miles away in the desert Southwest, from Vegas to California's Mojave, Phoenix and Tucson, it would also set off an exodus. 

Nor, correspondingly, could anyone have grasped a different chain of events that linked Greater Yellowstone to the oceans: rising seas pushed by tropical storm surges causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage to coastal developments, submerging some, sending huge numbers of residents scrambling inland when insurance companies no longer were willing to pay policy owners to rebuild or the companies went bankrupt.
Yet it happened. More than a million desperate “environmental refugees” poured into different corners of Greater Yellowstone on top of the others who originally came seeking the good life. As for what happened to Greater Yellowstone’s famous wildlife, well, that will be explored in another story.

Now, along the four-lane highway leading down Gallatin Canyon to Big Sky, a corridor of roadway three times as wide as the Gallatin River itself, you find every bend of the river on this March day crowded with masses of gray-headed diehard anglers waiting their turns to cast; each knows the current will be dipping fast as another short fishing season is brought to a close.

It’s an odd ritual they do in remembrance of a pastime that long ago lost its meaning. Just as it is difficult to conceive of a “ski industry” as once being a major pillar of the winter economy in the Rockies, so, too, is it a weird notion to ponder there ever being a thriving multi-million-dollar “flyfishing industry.”

The Gallatin River—formerly one of Montana’s crown liquid jewels that flows out of Yellowstone National Park—is still regaled for being a location in the quaint 20th century fairy tale, A River Runs Through It.

On May 1 every year, the state of Montana shutters rivers to angling and rafting because of low flows and an attempt to reduce human stress on what remains of dwindling wild-reared trout populations. No matter, you can still fish simply by slipping in your Virtual Reality contact lenses and catch any species you desire.

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Back in the real world of 2068, low flows and warm temperatures on the Gallatin are mirrored on every stream in the region—the Madison, Yellowstone, Big Horn, Jefferson, Shoshone, even the Snake in Jackson Hole where calls on water made by farmers in Idaho for irrigation have created huge tensions with federal land management agencies trying to keep enough aqua between the banks for fish and wildlife. Those summer days when a thousand inner tubers cooled off in July and August floating down the Madison River west of Bozeman? A distant memory. Now you can leapfrog the channel without getting your feet wet.

A perk for the Gallatin; its cfs (cubic feet per second) flows are augmented with a perpetual release of treated sewage water dumped into the river channel because Big Sky proper, population 30,000, had no other place to put it.

Encircling Lone Mountain, the forested panorama of evergreens present in the old family photos is now a mixture of dead arboreal snags killed by mountain beetles, black patches where fire swept through, and bare, brush-covered slopes where trees did not naturally grow back. One can also take note of the clearcuts that politicians authorized the U.S. Forest Service to carry out, based on the faulty premise that felling the forest of its old trees would prevent wildfire; now it is merely a testament to monumentally misguided thinking. Grasses and brush infernos still broke out from lightning strikes and careless human activity because climate change every summer transformed them into tinder. 

As you leave U.S. Highway 191 and wend westward toward the old Big Sky Resort, there’s another thing up the valley that didn’t exist in your great grandparents’ snapshots: a road that was pushed through the Madison Mountains as an artery to reach the Madison Valley, hastily blazed to provide a second emergency escape route for panicked citizens dealing with fears of fire and the potential of earthquakes. That, in turn, ignited an onslaught of development that poured into the Madison Valley turning many of the ranches not protected by conservation easements into massive real estate plays.

Such a vision, what some might consider dystopia, isn’t a jeremiad coming from the mouth of a radical environmentalist. Rather, it’s a prediction made by many experts thinking hard about climate change. Ski and trout towns, whose winter economies were built on the medium of frozen water, and the expectation it would also exist, are very different in the 2060s and their likely transformation, in a warming West, became harbingers.
Jackson Lake, liquid heart of Grand Teton National Park and important water source for the Snake River, on a recent late summer day. In that year, many reaches of the lake were left high and dry following drought conditions (expected to become the new norm with climate change) and irrigators in Idaho demanding that their water be released. In decades to come, whose interests will take precedent—ecological and economic interests in Jackson Hole or potato growers downstream? Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Jackson Lake, liquid heart of Grand Teton National Park and important water source for the Snake River, on a recent late summer day. In that year, many reaches of the lake were left high and dry following drought conditions (expected to become the new norm with climate change) and irrigators in Idaho demanding that their water be released. In decades to come, whose interests will take precedent—ecological and economic interests in Jackson Hole or potato growers downstream? Photo by Todd Wilkinson
So now, let’s flash back. It is almost the year 2020.

In your great grandparents’ era, politicians denied that such a future would ever be possible and citizens, who did not want to contemplate reality, kept re-electing them. In Washington, D.C, members of Congress waged constant war upon scientists who were studying human-caused climate change, denying any serious causal link between pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and rising temperature.

They systematically slashed the budgets of government science agencies. They said nothing when political appointees, who worked previously as lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry, were brought into the U.S. departments of Interior, Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Emergency Management Administration and others, creating such hostile working conditions in government service that career scientists fled.

Brazenly, they dismissed out of hand a number of warning calls. One of them was a report titled “The Montana Climate Assessment” prepared in late 2017 by the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, overseen by leading scientists at both Montana State University in Bozeman and the University of Montana in Missoula. Research informing the report’s conclusions was underwritten by a $20-million grant from the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency and one of the most respected scientific bodies in the world.

Dr. Cathy Whitlock, a professor in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences then, and one of the lead authors, told a reporter the reason for the report was to deliver a regional assessment of likely climate-related outcomes in Montana pertaining to forestry, agriculture and water. Her colleagues said the findings could generally also be extrapolated to the neighboring states of more arid Wyoming and Idaho.

Previously, the International Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had prepared a number of global assessments that identified macro-issues but none that drilled deeper into eco-regions like the Northern Rockies and the  interconnected high plains. It should be noted that professor emeritus Dr. Steven Running, then at the University of Montana, had been part of a team, separate from Whitlock’s, that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its pioneering work in pondering the cause-and-effect of climate change.

So compelling was their wake-up call that even the U.S. Department of Defense, in the Pentagon’s regular Quadrennial Reports for the four branches of the military, referred to climate change as both a serious national security risk and a major challenge to American interests around the world.

The Montana Climate Assessment involved a comprehensive congealing of historic temperature, crop and water data, a thorough review of existing peer-reviewed science and it used sophisticated computer modeling, given trendlines, to project likely scenarios as it relates to greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere.
Dr. Cathy Whitlock, professor of Earth Sciences and research fellow at Montana Institute on Ecosystems. Whitlock, also involved with the relationship between wildfire and climate, was a lead author of the recent Montana Climate Assessment.
Dr. Cathy Whitlock, professor of Earth Sciences and research fellow at Montana Institute on Ecosystems. Whitlock, also involved with the relationship between wildfire and climate, was a lead author of the recent Montana Climate Assessment.
In 2017, Whitlock said Montana had experienced an average rise of between two- and  three-degrees since 1950. She and colleagues concluded that temperatures going forward would warm between four and six degrees more by the middle of the 21st century.

To put this in perspective, even a small rise in temperature can result in “average” low precipitation years plunging into full-on drought conditions; meanwhile, “normal” drought conditions can quickly escalate into the severe category when streams feeding rivers run bone dry or are reduced to trickles. It also affects the “recharge” of underground aquifers that are fed by surface water which normally passes nearly unseen through the landscape.

In the three decades that followed the 1990s, when climate change data first started to accumulate and droughts became called “the new normal” in the West, impacts to farmers’ crops and ranchers’ livestock inflicted billions of dollars in negative economic impact and costs associated with federal disaster relief. On top of it, billions of dollars annually during the first two decades of the new millennium were spent by the U.S. Forest Service fighting wildfires, consuming half of the agency’s operating budget and hobbling its ability to do other things.
This could be anywhere, and will be everywhere.  Photo courtesy NPS
This could be anywhere, and will be everywhere. Photo courtesy NPS
In a different breathtaking analysis published by the National Academies, it suggests forests as we recognize them today will vanish: "Continued warming could completely transform Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem fire regimes by the mid-21st century, with profound consequences for many species and for ecosystem services including aesthetics, hydrology, and carbon storage," the authors write. 

"The conditions associated with extreme fire seasons are expected to become much more frequent, with fire occurrence and area burned exceeding that observed in the historical record or reconstructed from paleoproxy records for the past 10,000 years. Even in years without extreme fire events, average annual area burned is projected to increase, and years with no large fires—common until recently—are projected to become increasingly rare."

Still, some claim that climate change means good news, that warmer temperatures will yield longer growing seasons. That’s true so long as it is accompanied by adequate moisture. 

Such sanguine thinking also was rebuffed by forerunning geographer John Wesley Powell in the late 19th century who warned that homesteaders who believed rain would, by the providence of God, follow their plows were fools.  And for much of the 20th century, many rural areas of the West emptied out. William deBuys, the great Powell historian,  wrote in his biography, “Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell”: “Many thousands of families made a go of trying to farm without irrigation in the arid lands, and they suffered extremely. It was a bitter double cross on those hopeful people, and Powell saw it.”

With climate change, what happens when the irrigation ditches run dry?

In the interior West, known for its aridity, experts say there will be another month or two of conditions suitable for growing grains in the middle of the 21st century, and that more moisture will likely come as rain rather than snow.

However, it is also replete with an insidious paradox, scientists say. Warmer temperatures mean that enough added moisture must fall from the sky to offset the drying out of soils caused by hotter daytime temperatures as well as water that’s lost to evaporation or isn’t available as snowmelt.

Rivers are destined to chronically have their flows squeezed, Whitlock and colleagues say. Sorting out who will get priority in water use—agriculture/irrigators, municipalities (flows at the tap, lawn and garden watering), developers buying up rights, or ecology (such as keeping enough water in streams to ensure fish populations can persist) could bring major cultural conflict.

Moreover, there will be a lot of tough decisions with which society will need to contend: should, for example, water be pulled out of streams in order to feed non-native cattle by growing alfalfa when that same resource is crucial to the welfare of people and the survival of native wildlife?

Startlingly, Whitlock also noted this: if the status quo of CO2 emissions continues unabated or increases as a result of burning more fossil fuels now being promoted by the Trump Administration, the end of the 21st century could actually see a temperature rise of around nine to twelve degrees.  For dryland farming in Montana, it would be catastrophic. “If those temperature increases happen, it will literally be a different world, unlike the one we presently know,” she said.
For dryland farming in Montana, it would be catastrophic. “If those temperature increases happen, it will literally be a different world, unlike the one we presently know."  —Dr. Cathy Whitlock, senior scientist at Montana State University
Steve Running believes southwest Montana’s climate within two human generations will resemble that of Salt Lake City’s and arid stretches of the Great Basin. In the rural interior of Wyoming away from the mountains, where summer temperatures can already be scorching, conditions likely will be far more problematic, waterwise. Plus, there are major metropolitan areas, with political influence, already hoping to sink straws into water in the inland West and pipe it, like oil, to serve their needs.

Running scoffs at notions that spending millions of dollars in cloud seeding will make an appreciable difference against declining snowpacks. And, he chuckles at the irony that the same science-denying politicians who embrace manipulative cloud seeding reject the notion that human influence affects climate.

When people talk about “adaptation,” he adds, many think of slow incremental—i.e. orderly and measured—responses to climate change, but events could force a more drastic, nonlinear response, particularly if climate change accelerates.

This could hasten something completely unplanned for—environmental refuges (read Jeff Goodell's piece in Rolling Stone) involving people being forced to move closer to where the water is. The Greater Yellowstone region sits at the headwaters of three major river systems—the Snake-Columbia; Yellowstone-Missouri-Mississippi; and Green-Colorado.

At stake is the very way we think and interact with the landscape around us.  Here is just one minor touchstone; the city of Bozeman is rapidly racing toward the point where its water capacity, capable of serving the present population via Hyalite Reservoir and nearby tributaries will be maxed out. There may be pushes made to shore up more water storage capacity that could mean building more impoundments in mountain draws where streams presently flow wild and serve as the last refugia for native wild fish.

Warmer temperatures, as mentioned earlier, mean less snow and more rain. “The snow season we currently have won’t last as long and it will likely end abruptly,” Whitlock said.

To most people, the changes are still almost imperceptible but it’s the gradual deepening effects that could be transformative—in the altered timing of runoff, the pollination of plants, when greenup happens, when trees die or burn, when humans are forced to give up what they used to do.  

In March 2018, experts with the National Academies of Sciences released its Fourth National Climate Assessment, drawing upon thousands of studies from around the world. On the macro-level, the findings were stunning (see them at the end of this article).

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Ski towns because of their location in the higher elevation will be hit hard. As one scientist told me, “For about seven generations, the thinking and identity of the rural West has sprung from its assumed relationship to water, the ability to manipulate it, count on it being there, and that’s what had laid the groundwork for economic and social stability. You could set your watch by seasons.  But half a century from now that will be gone, replaced by disruptions to routines and then abandoning of them.”

Regarding the future of winter, one of the experts sounding the alarm has a one-of-a-kind niche in the U.S. ski industry. He is concerned, in particular, about what awaits mountain communities. Auden Schendler works for one of the best-known outdoor snow sport corporations in the world, the Aspen Skiing Company.

What Schendler and others describe as Greater Yellowstone’s possible climate-related futureshock can be applied to other hamlets throughout the Rockies. “Climate change isn’t coming,” Schendler explains. “It’s already here; we’re at the front-end now. But we can alter the future for those who will be looking back. The only question is: will they be praising us for taking action or cursing us for what we didn’t do?”
“Climate change isn’t coming. It’s already here; we’re at the front-end now. The only question is: will our ancestors be praising us for taking action or cursing us for what we didn’t do?”         — Auden Schendler
An ardent recreationist and a family man with bills to pay, Schendler has been called a cognitive dissident, conscientious objector, and, to ski destinations that want to keep pretending there isn’t a problem of culpability, a gadfly. He actually gets paid to think defiantly about not only the connection between climate change and business but the relationship between economy and ecology—and how the health of the latter supports the former.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke vows to radically alter the management of public lands in the West, gutting environmental laws and unleashing an unprecedented push to extract oil, gas and coal in order to secure “American energy dominance," code for burning a lot of fossil fuels.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke vows to radically alter the management of public lands in the West, gutting environmental laws and unleashing an unprecedented push to extract oil, gas and coal in order to secure “American energy dominance," code for burning a lot of fossil fuels.
In recent months, Zinke and members of his staff have also made some head-turning assertions such as: that burdensome regulation of fossil fuel companies is “un-American" and that implementing wind power leads to global warming. In a speech delivered to the oil industry, Zinke said that Interior employees who don’t embrace his ideas are disloyal. He's also had a tacit role in the aggressive push to silence scientists. A Zinke colleague chastised U.S. Geological Survey staffers for publicizing an agency study that chronicled the decline of 39 glaciers in Glacier National Park.

President Donald Trump has argued that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese. U.S. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a dear friend of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, has notoriously asserted that climate change “is the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people.” 

In Wyoming, politicians at every government level, from school boards to state legislature, have moved to strike mention of climate change form text books and ordered the removal of art installations at the University of Wyoming addressing the impacts of climate on forests.  Notably, the actual football field turf at the University of Wyoming is called The Jonah Field which honors the largest natural gas field in the state—one that even former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal said was a sacrifice zone for wildlife and an example of how not to develop fossil fuels. Yet that is exactly the kind of full-field development Zinke envisions.

During an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who established her residency to run for office in the Jackson Hole town of Wilson, declared that "the science [of climate change] is just simply bogus, you know, we know that temperatures have been stable for the last 15 years." 

Climate skeptics, however, cannot erase the data or the physical evidence rapidly mounting on the ground. If by "stable" Cheney means consistently rising temperatures, she is correct. Scientists with the National Academies note that, through last year, the last 17 years since the new millennium began were all counted among the hottest recorded in modern human times, except for one. 

One also wonders how much time Ms. Cheney has spent conversing with scientists from the National Academies or hiking the woods of Greater Yellowstone with ecologists.

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Yellowstone winterkeeper Steven Fuller, a Mountain Journal columnist who has spent 45 years in the center of America’s first national park which, in turn forms the biological heart of Greater Yellowstone, has witnessed the changes firsthand.  Wetlands where he took photographs two decades ago are dried up. Gone are the frogs and toads that used to be common. The fire season is two months longer, there’s earlier melt out and there’s a dearth of moose which he doesn’t blame on wolves but drier landscape. [In Minnesota, moose declines are linked primarily to parasites now proliferating in and being passed along by white-tailed deer (doing better in a warmer climate) in addition to predation by wolves and rising temperatures].

“The deep onset of winter in Yellowstone, the stretches of extreme cold, have become rarer and rarer,” Fuller says. “Deep cold brought a special feeling to the park interior. It used to last for months and it only happened a couple of days this year and it’s getting briefer.”  Deep cold and a huge snowpack also favored species that evolved with it. 

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Besides being the senior vice president of sustainability for Aspen Snowmass, Schendler has served as board president of Protect Our Winters, a no-holds-barred nonprofit that has more than 130,000 supporters around the globe. Its primary target is first getting the ski industry and outdoor gear manufacturers to wake up, educate and mobilize hundreds of millions of outdoor sports enthusiasts around the world, then turn up the heat on Congress, governors, state houses and even local chambers of commerce.

Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Snowmass.
Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Snowmass.
Schendler and Protect Our Winters founder Jeremy Jones note that as the past few years have set global records as the warmest in modern times, more than a million square miles of snowpack— an area equal in size to three Texases—that would ordinarily exist in spring has disappeared since 1970. The same as epic areas of sea ice cover in the Arctic north has shrunken back and the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica are in accelerating melt or cracking off into the ocean.

In a 2018 report released by Protect Our Winters, researchers said, “low snow years have negative impacts on the economy. We found that the increased skier participation levels in high snow years meant an extra $692.9 million in value added and 11,800 extra jobs compared to the 2001–2016 average. In low snow years, reduced participation decreased value added by over $1 billion and cost 17,400 jobs compared to an average season." 

What happens when low snow years become chronic and when those dollars stop trickling through local economies?  In Greater Yellowstone, nature-tourism related to just Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks is a $1 billion annual industry. Add in the commerce related to skiing, fishing, wildlife watching, recreation, hunting and guest lodges outside the parks and you can add a few billion dollars more, says Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics. The health of nature also serves as the lucrative lynchpin of real estate. There's no better example than the ultra-exclusive Yellowstone Club in Big Sky that has its own private members-only ski area.  

I first met Schendler in 2014. I listened to him address the Jackson Hole SHIFT Festival on outdoor recreation, saying things about climate change the rest of his snowsports industry and purveyors of winter-oriented outdoor gear and apparel wouldn’t touch. I was shocked not only by his clear articulation of the science, all of which was backed by studies, but also by his chutzpah. 
       
Schendler said things that no ski resort executive will or real estate broker. They make their livings on speculation, on self-interest and on short-term get-in-while-the getting-is-good kind of thinking. 

Were Schendler a federal employee working for the Trump Administration, saying the stuff that he shares would be liable to get one fired. But not only does he still have a job, and has been told by his boss that his back is covered, but his message, in spite of organized campaigns of disinformation spun to blunt it, is gaining traction. And most of all what he says is corroborated by science and what many are witnessing on the ground.

A former reporter with High Country News, Schendler doesn’t cloak his frustration with both the ski and larger outdoor recreation industries.  When one thinks of all the fossil fuels burned to get skiers to western slopes, the amount of energy needed to operate the infrastructure and costs to heat second homes and buildings, it becomes clear it is one of the most carbon-intensive recreational pursuits.

Many outdoor-recreation companies talk a good game but their actions, he says, actually amount to little more than greenwashing. In 2016, Schendler was asked to give a talk at the Outdoor Industry Association rendezvous in Denver. As he prepared his remarks, organizers wanted him to tone it down—to focus not on swift attitude adjustments companies must make to slow climate change, but they wanted him to preach how business can still grow and thrive in a warming world.

They wanted him to paint a sanguine portrait, to suggest bullish investment conditions await for real estate in ski towns and to gloss over reality; they wanted him to tout better snowmaking, to say that the answer will simply be shifting the focus of outdoor recreation from winter to summer and shoulder seasons; they wanted him not to mention the ecological challenges that are coming for species that will be pushed to the edge.
The Outdoor Industry Association  wanted Schendler to basically say “no worries” and not utter anything negative about climate change because it’s such a downer of a topic that neither the outdoor recreation industry nor the people it wants to sell products to want to hear. “I told them, ‘No. I won’t do it. I don’t sugar coat,’” Schendler said.
They wanted Schendler to basically say “no worries” and not utter anything negative about climate change because it’s such a downer of a topic that neither the outdoor recreation industry nor the people it wants to sell products to want to hear.

“I told them, ‘No. I won’t do it. I don’t sugar coat,’” Schendler said. “That head-in-sand perspective is pervasive and it feeds into the perception that climate change is only a silly preoccupation of a radical fringe instead of being the greatest challenge for civilization of our time.”

In my own reporting as an environmental journalist, what Schendler mentions above is pervasive and it goes well beyond some members of the outdoor recreation industry. It is also pandemic in the real-estate and development industries; the attitude is that whatever happens in the future will be left for people generations from now to contend with.

It includes some CEOs, who have vacation homes in Greater Yellowstone, who are afraid to weigh in on the side of science and won’t go near the topic of actually discussing limits on human consumption/use of wildlands to better the prospects for wildlife. Why? Because they are afraid of losing clout in their political and social groups. 

And there are many non-governmental conservation organizations that are so afraid of possibly alienating funders in the non-profit world they won’t touch the problems of climate change, industrial strength outdoor recreation and its impact on what remains of the wild West soon to come under a huge strain from climate-related impacts.

What Schendler and others—including former Black Diamond mountaineering CEO Peter Metcalf and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard—are advancing involves an operational question. It goes far beyond the bounds of existing balance sheets pertaining to investments in snowmaking, lift capacity, real estate, building warm season mountain biking trails to service growing numbers of warm-weather visitors or even believing that fortresses can be erected around exclusive gated communities to wall climate change out.
Metaphorically, will the fortunes of ski areas in the future be turned to sand? Scientists say the snowsport industry's days of prominence, as we know them today, are numbered yet there remains stiff resistance to confronting the very issue that is causing its demise.  NPS photo/Joseph Tumidalsky
Metaphorically, will the fortunes of ski areas in the future be turned to sand? Scientists say the snowsport industry's days of prominence, as we know them today, are numbered yet there remains stiff resistance to confronting the very issue that is causing its demise. NPS photo/Joseph Tumidalsky
It’s analogous to NASA, Schendler says, identifying that an asteroid is on a direct collision course with Earth.  Yet unlike that scenario, climate change, he notes, is occurring and any hope of slowing its effects depends on a singular action: reducing the amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. (It must be noted here that Patagonia is a supporter of Mountain Journal but there are no editorial connections between MJ and Patagonia.  Indeed, the interview with Chouinard, below, happened before Mountain Journal was launched in August 2016).

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Apart from rationalizing inaction on climate change, based on the argument that it comes with huge costs and requires all of us changing the way we live, Schendler says politicians, corporations and citizens also avoid addressing “the moral piece” of responsibility to future generations. “It’s really about how we want to live our lives, and what obligations we have as parents and citizens, even as job providers, to take big-picture steps to address the problem,” he says, then invokes something profound. “The way to do that actually costs almost nothing, but carries risk and exposure: it’s to use our voice and influence to speak out and force elected officials to move.”

The National Ski Areas Association, representing more than 300 alpine resorts accounting for 90 percent of skier/snowboarder visits nationwide, has a program to reduce carbon emissions and recognizes the need to become more political around climate and to coerce member organizations into action, Schendler says.

For them, it is a survival issue. Given current carbon emissions and lack of action, climate change stands to render many of NSAA’s member resorts no longer viable. Notably, Schendler added, Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee in Wyoming are on the list of “climate challengers” taking modest action toward the ultimate goal of carbon neutrality. But Montana’s Big Sky and Bridger Bowl are not.

Schendler has brought along his boss, Mike Kaplan, CEO at Aspen, and Onno Wieringa, general manager at Utah’s Alta who recently retired. Young people understand the urgency of climate change and they want to engage, he says; they just want to know how. They are willing to make sacrifices as long as they are spelled out and involve their elders sharing the burden. The Millennials/Gen Zers that Schendler talks to are also resentful of their Baby Boomer and Generation X parents and grandparents creating an epochal environmental problem that is theirs to inherit.

Climate change is the greatest existential threat to the ski industry and merely believing the answer resides with tweaking a business model and becoming four season developments, is ignoring reality.
Climate change is the greatest existential threat to the ski industry and merely believing the answer resides with tweaking a business model and becoming four season developments, is ignoring reality.
In his travels across the West, trying to engage citizens, Schendler notes that young people want to work for companies that not only believe in diversity and sustainability but evince an environmental consciousness in their business practices.  And he adds that companies demonstrating social responsibility are using it to attract smarter, more committed employees. “People, especially those with children, want to work for companies doing the right thing,” he told me.

Businessman Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and an outspoken promoter of sustainability, corporate altruism in addressing climate change, and healthy environments, is featured in the February 2018 edition of National Geographic with NatGeo's Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg.

Companies that are openly committed to environmental protection are attracting top-flight talent entering the workforce. When Goldberg asked Bloomberg what role big employers play in the environment, Bloomberg replied, "Why will a corporation be environmentally friendly?  Today, if you go and recruit on campus for the best and brightest, they [young people] interview you. They ask, What are you doing for the environment? Employees want to work for an environmentally-friendly company. And then there are investors. If you talk to the managers of the big pensions and endowments, they want socially responsible investing. We don't buy coal stocks, gun stocks, tobacco stocks."

The fact that snow will disappear beneath skis should actually be the least of worries for those in mountain towns, Schendler says.  At the urging of Wieringa and Metcalf, 14 resorts in Utah sent a letter to Governor Gary Herbert in 2016 pointing out that 70 percent of Salt Lake City’s drinking water comes from snowpack and 80 percent of the state’s freshwater goes to farmers and ranchers. They also noted that by 2050, Utah’s population is expected to double to 6 million. “Do I find it a little ridiculous to be pondering whether we’ll have a ski season 50 years from now given what other more serious priorities will be?” Metcalf asks. “Completely. But whatever it takes. If businesses with the most engaged passionate audiences don’t step forward, there’s no hope.”

Peter Metcalf, photo courtesy Peter Metcalf
Peter Metcalf, photo courtesy Peter Metcalf
As Schendler notes, Metcalf led the effort to move the Outdoor Retailer convention out of Utah based on the state’s regressive land use policies. “That was a $100 million economic hit to the state, and boon to Denver,” Schendler says. “I told Peter that the rationale might as well be climate, too, ie, Utah is just as regressive on climate. But the outdoor industry has been scared to speak so overtly about climate. Public land issues are a lot safer and easier to take on as a cause. But climate change could not only dramatically negatively alter the experience people have on public lands, but it will bring major disruptions to economies that depend on them.”

Outdoor recreation in the U.S. is worth around $800 billion annually in consumer spending and it is responsible for creating 6.1 million direct jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. In Montana alone, outdoor recreation generates $5.8 billion in consumer spending, $1.5 billion of which flows as employee wages to 64,400 jobs. It is responsible for more than $400 million annually in local and state taxes, which fund schools and other essential services.

Climate-related disruptions are likely to hit Teton County, Wyoming hard.  Jackson Hole's entire economy is dependent on various forms of outdoor recreation. Its eye-pleasing scenery—besides generous tax laws in the state—attract the uber wealthy who can live anywhere they want.   In 2015,  The Charture Institute commissioned a report titled "The Coming Climate: Ecological and Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Teton County". 

The analysis was led by authors Corinna Riginos, a conservation scientist, and Mark Newcomb, who is today a Teton County Commissioner. The conclusions they reach are sobering in laying out profoundly traumatic consequences for both the natural environment and commerce. 

° ° °

Clarion calls, however, have been sounding for years. In 2006, climatologist James Hansen, now retired from his high-profile job with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said carbon-intensive business-as-usual would be a “guarantee of global and regional disasters.”

A growing group of business people and prominent outdoor folk, from Metcalf to Chouinard and Todd Spaletto of North Face share Schendler’s and Hansen’s contentions. Corroborated by an irrefutable body of scientific evidence, they say human-caused climate change isn’t an abstraction; harbingers can be found everywhere. It’s only a matter of connecting the dots. Why the CEOs of other major outdoor retailers and manufacturers aren’t more vocal is not only a mystery to Schendler but an abrogation of the kind of corporate social responsibility they purport to represent.

Many people point to recent “epic” snow accumulation in the mountains, but the real issue, scientists says, is when and how fast it melts and disappears. In decades to come, moisture that gathers in the mountains will mostly come as rainfall that doesn’t hold high into summer.  In 2017, northern Montana in the vicinity of Glacier National Park had huge snow accumulations and yet the park’s famous historic backcountry lodge, Sperry Chalet, burned in a summer wildfire.

In August 2016, I drove to interview coal-industry officials in Gillette, Wyoming—hub of the Powder River Basin—to write a story about the link between the burning of carbon-intensive fossil fuels in power plants and greenhouse gasses, more evidence was visible.

Giant plumes of woodsmoke poured into the sky from forest fires burning in Yellowstone National Park, while along U.S. Interstate 90 the Yellowstone River had been abruptly closed to fishing and boating for 180 miles. The catalyst for the shutdown of outdoor recreation: an outbreak of a lethal kidney-destroying disease in thousands of whitefish linked to warm water and low flows in the Yellowstone.

Choking smoke returned in the summer of 2017 to the valleys of western Montana and so did closures of streams due to low water causing stress on fish.  A study showed that in 2017 some $400 million was spent fighting wildfires and the disruptive impacts cost Montana $240 million (yes, a quarter of a billion dollars) in lost visitor spending.

Dan Vermillion, a Livingston, Montana-based purveyor of global fly-fishing trips and chairman of the Montana Fish, Wildlilfe and Parks Commission, said scientists whom he consulted blamed it on climate change. From his office in the Yellowstone River town, Vermillion described the closure as a sobering wake-up call for the recreation industry, especially fly fishing, which is a potent engine for the regional economy.

“We’re seeing events happen with a frequency we’ve never experienced before,” Vermillion said. “The closure on the Yellowstone was a costly biggie but in fact we’ve been witnessing a rising number of user restrictions occurring on other rivers for half a decade.”

When the Yellowstone River was shut down for three weeks in 2016, Vermillion said that business at a fly shop he once owned in Livingston dropped 95 percent in three days. Later, the same parasitic pathogen that killed whitefish, proliferative kidney disease, turned up in seven other major trout rivers in and near Greater Yellowstone, renowned globally for its blue-ribbon streams. And it was found again in 2017.

Some 40 percent of people who came to Montana in recent years for fishing did so in Park County (adjacent to Yellowstone Park), where the Yellowstone River flows out of its eponymous national park. By the 2060s as much as 70 percent of prime cold-water mountain habitat for trout could be gone. A recent study carried out by the U.S. Geological Survey showed that trout populations in seven major river basins are already exhibiting signs of stress.

When Vermillion was a boy growing up in Billings, Montana, August was the prime month for fishing. “Now I don’t book in August because of the uncertainty over water. In my world every place we do business—Mongolia, Brazil, the Bahamas, Alaska, British Columbia and Montana—has seen dramatic changes in what used to be considered ‘normal water.’ Fishing seasons were designed around when we had the most stable water conditions but it’s all getting out of whack. You create a negative perception and then people stop coming and pretty soon you have a domino effect caused by changing climate.”
A public land user stands at an overlook above the South Fork of the Snake River, a popular destination for global anglers. It's a sighing vision mirrored on the Yellowstone, Upper Missouri and other rivers that define the character of Greater Yellowstone, their persistence threatened by losing snow and no political will to address the cause. Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management
A public land user stands at an overlook above the South Fork of the Snake River, a popular destination for global anglers. It's a sighing vision mirrored on the Yellowstone, Upper Missouri and other rivers that define the character of Greater Yellowstone, their persistence threatened by losing snow and no political will to address the cause. Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management
Vermillion has kids. He is frustrated. And refusing to sit idle he decided in 2018 to run for the Montana state legislature saying that confronting climate change is the only wise decision to protect the lifestyle and economy Montanans enjoy. He is profoundly frustrated by the attitudes of Zinke, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte.

Especially in the case of Daines and Gianforte. Both of them claim to be promoters of the new economy driven by technology, informed by science, and yet they have become boosters, along with Zinke, of trying to revive a moribund coal industry that is directly linked to exacerbating the problems of climate change.

Vermillion wondered aloud: how can two elected officials who claim to be champions of science and technological innovation blatantly push to keep the state’s economy tethered to forms of energy production that are outdated, pose a long-term threat to quality of life of their constituents and has been hobbled most, not by environmental regulations but a glut of natural gas?

Zinke and Pruitt, the EPA administrator, have done more than downplay climate change or dismiss its reality. They have taken actions to reduce funding for research into climate change, mute civil servants who speak publicly about it, sow a climate of fear within civil service ranks which is devastating morale, and they have moved to streamline policies that will result in even more carbon being jettisoned into the atmosphere.

Ironic is that Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who grew up on a ranch in Jackson Hole, has demonstrated limited leadership in fostering real discussion about the negative impacts bearing down on his state. He seems to have an aversion for anything that flows out of the mouths of environmentalists. 

In fact, in 2016 he said Wyoming's strategy would be to "double down" in promoting coal production. In fairness, he's in a tough economic spot though never has Mead stood up to lawmakers in challenging the scientific illiteracy that is rampant in the Wyoming legislature. 

° ° °

After I returned from Gillette, Wyoming, Chouinard was passing through Bozeman. He doubts that affluent Americans are willing to inconvenience themselves with necessary lifestyle modifications to confront climate change. He said humans narcissistically deflect and point fingers but we never reflect on our impacts or hold ourselves accountable. Those who consume the most resources ought to be vilified, not held up as role models.

“We’re self-centered consumers not citizens concerned about a greater good,” Chouinard said. “We’re electing people who are actually voting against our survival. It’s just like being an alcoholic and being in denial that you’re an alcoholic. And until we face up to that, nothing’s going to happen.” He has made elevating awareness of climate change a major focus of Patagonia’s marketing.
“We’re self-centered consumers not citizens concerned about a greater good. We’re electing people who are actually voting against our survival. It’s just like being an alcoholic and being in denial that you’re an alcoholic. And until we face up to that, nothing’s going to happen.” —Yvon Chouinard
Zinke, experts say, needs to spend more time in the field with scientists who can show him concrete examples of change that is occurring beyond what is considered normal. What might he learn?

One point in this: even a seemingly small rise in average temperature can have big effects, ecologist Mike Tercek noted in a fairly recent special climate change edition of the journal Yellowstone Science. “Scientists predict that we will experience 3 to 8 degrees of warming in the next 100 years. In other words, the planet will experience about as much warming in the next 100 years as it did in the 8,000 years at the end of the last ice age, but this time it will be 30 to 80 times faster,” he wrote.

Scientists with the National Academy of Sciences state that since 1979, climate change is to blame for half of the drying forests in the West, expanding wildfire areas by 16,000 square miles. In addition, research spelled out in a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report said that for every couple of degrees the Fahrenheit rises, wildfire areas will quadruple in the West. And research notes that climate change is likely to result in more lightning.

Professor Andrew Hansen, who oversees the Biodiversity Lab at Montana State University, was among four lead authors of a 2016 book, Climate Change in Wildlands, which offers a comprehensive overview of documented impacts and likely consequences for wild ecosystems. He recently elaborated on what it means for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

According to Hansen, the number of days below zero F in Bozeman averaged 20 during the 1950s, yet 14 in the last decade and is trending toward fewer and fewer. And the decline in snowpack has reduced river flows by about 25 percent in the Yellowstone River since then. Due to the current low flows and warmer water temperatures, summer fishing restrictions are now the norm in rivers.

“I think the term climate change is more accurate than global warming,” Vermillion says. “Overall, things are warming and over decades that trend will prevail but in the meantime non-typical weather will be more profound, including oddly earlier and later snowstorms.”

In spring 2017, it appeared that the Northern Rockies and high plains were well positioned with ample snowfall, but hot temperatures and no rainfall produced a “flash drought” in eastern Montana, punctuated by huge range fires. "Those fires were huge and devastating to ranchers but they didn't seem to register around Bozeman," Whitlock said.  Meanwhile, in the mountains, snowpack melted off fast and a lengthy fire season followed, cloaking the Gallatin Valley in thick unhealthy woodsmoke  for more than a month.

Models suggest that peak runoff will happen earlier in potentially short-term torrents of water and summers will begin with lower stream flows weeks ahead of the historic normal. “Last year [2017] hit everybody by surprise but that kind of condition is more likely what you’ll see in a future driven by warmer temperatures,” Whitlock said.
Fire seasons could become even trickier. How? Grasses may grow tall with spring rain and then dry out, leaving fuel loads on the edge and inside forests even more incendiary. It means that forests will burn or die whether they have been "thinned" or not.

How will lifestyles be different? “We are going to be living in an ecosystem that is markedly warmer, with more extreme weather events, including flooding in spring followed by what we would call droughts in early summer and then, of course, fire and smoke,” Whitlock said. “The big issue will be water. We need to have more conversations that just aren’t happening now. If we want to plot a path forward, we need to be talking.”

To use a health care analogy and the pleasure that early smokers and chewers of tobacco get in the here and now: if you knew that smoking a pack or pinching a can of chaw each day would result in a painful, horrible death decades into the future, would it alter behavior and thinking about the immediate present in favor of mid and longer-term horizon lines?
Related to this inquiry is what does it say about the character of politicians who knowingly avoid or ignore having serious, earnest conversations with constituents about the future of their states?

Members of western Congressional delegations have access to the brightest scientific minds in the world working across disciplines in ways that relate to climate. The vast majority of scientists say future generations will pay a price for our own politically-motivated ignorance.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the lone Democrat among the ten federal legislators serving on Capitol Hill from Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, says he is not only persuaded by the science but he’s witnessed the incremental changes. His neighbors around Big Sandy, Montana where he is a dirt farmer, are keenly attuned to weather/climate vulnerability. “If you ask them, many of my fellow farmers already know that conditions are changing,” he said recently. “They know something is different. They just don’t want government telling them what to do.”

Tester also realizes the paradox that unless government engages in a smart way, action will not happen. Many farmers and ranchers, struggling to make ends meet, want to ride out the present as long as they can. That’s why incentives, such as rewarding producers for sequestering carbon in the soil, are necessary.

° ° °

Jason Matthews always considered himself a conservationist but it was economics and becoming a father that made him an activist. Matthews operates a dogsled tourism business in both Big Sky and Alaska. “I'm very concerned about the impacts of climate change on my business, Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures. We operate in the winter in the Taylor Fork area, north of West Yellowstone. Every year we are starting our season later, and ending our season earlier,” he said.

In 2017, there wasn’t enough snow to start operating until Dec. 17 and the last trip was March 19 “because unseasonably warm temperatures had destroyed the settled snow base. Our season is now just three months long. We have now lost a full month of operating. That means an approximately 25 percent loss in revenue for us. It also means a significant loss of work for our employees.”

In some ways, Alaska is a bellwether of what’s coming. During the summer, Matthews guides trips across the Herbert Glacier outside of Juneau. “Sadly, the business I partnered with there is ceasing their summer operations, because of deteriorating conditions on the glacier and unpredictable, inconsistent weather. Last summer the business was down 50 percent because of weather-related issues.” He is no longer running trips in Alaska.

Matthews spends a lot of time in the Far North. He’s visited the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 15 times and counts as friends several Iñupiat elders. Between science and the indigenous knowledge, the evidence is undeniable, especially with the connection between disappearing sea ice, which provided a shelf upon which polar bears could hunt seals.

“What's going on is polar bear numbers in that particular region, the Southern Beaufort Sea, are rapidly declining. By some estimates the population has declined nearly 40 percent since the beginning of the new millennium,” he says. A recent study, he notes, analyzed data on polar bears in northeast Alaska and the Northwest Territories and documented a 40 percent population loss from 1,500 to 900 bears since 2001.

“Many of us have heard this before—that statistic and talking point has been well shared by environmental and wildlife advocacy groups,” he said. “What is lesser known are the anecdotal stories that natives and long-term year round residents are seeing and experiencing first hand at the most northern reach of our continent.”

Matthews spoke with Inupiat Robert Thompson of Kaktovik who noted that strange thaw-freezing cycles are now routinely impacting caribou by turning the melting tundra so hard that caribou cannot access natural forage becoming weaker—a phenomenon that rarely happened before. Such ruminations are not abstract. A recent story in The Washington Post was titled “North Pole surges in the dead of winter, stunning scientists” and noted that the permafrost is melting and land is sinking, at the same time releasing vast amounts of additional stored carbon dioxide.

“With the mindsets and lifestyles we have, I believe we are on a trajectory we cannot reverse,” Matthews says. “I think regions like the Greater Yellowstone region and the Far North of Alaska will be impacted greatly not just by temperatures and ecologically, but also culturally. Sadly, many of the things that make Montana what it is will be so impacted that it won't even seem like Montana here anymore.”

Imagine the cool now-forested Gros Ventre mountains east of Jackson Hole, or the Gallatins, Madisons, Bridgers, Absaraokas, Winds, Tobacco Roots, Gravellys and Crazies looking like this in 50 years.  Under climate change predictions, most forests will burn and conditions will be so hot that forest succession as we know it—and being taught in forestry schools—will cease to exist.
Imagine the cool now-forested Gros Ventre mountains east of Jackson Hole, or the Gallatins, Madisons, Bridgers, Absaraokas, Winds, Tobacco Roots, Gravellys and Crazies looking like this in 50 years. Under climate change predictions, most forests will burn and conditions will be so hot that forest succession as we know it—and being taught in forestry schools—will cease to exist.
Both U.S. Sen. Daines and Congressman Gianforte—as well as the Congressional delegations in Wyoming and Idaho— have conspicuously avoided holding town hall meetings in which climate change is certain to be a topic of constituent concern. All have backed legislation that would unleash waves of logging projects ostensibly to prevent forests from burning. Given that Daines, Gianforte and their cohorts in neighboring states claim to represent science, it would be interesting to see what expert opinion they trot out to counter experts from the National Academies of Sciences, the foremost collection of scientists in the world.

° ° °

With regard to their assertion that logging can rescue forest health, they might spend a few hours in the backcountry with Dr. Jesse Logan.

Logan, a retired Forest Service entomologist, a national authority on mountain beetle outbreaks (and a Mountain Journal columnist), describes the unprecedented scale of insect attacks occurring on western forests. His opinion is echoed by entomologist Diana Six at the University of Montana.

Some 80 percent of whitebark pine trees in Greater Yellowstone are gone from death by blister rust and epic infestations of mountain pine beetles fueled by warming temperatures that allow them more easily reproduce. Seeds in whitebark pine cones have been an important food source for grizzly bears prior to denning and the collapse of whitebark pine is causing bears to range more widely, increasing conflicts with humans and could be resulting in smaller cub litter sizes and rates of reproduction in female bruins.

The evidence is irrefutable, Logan notes. It’s caused by rising average temperatures. But he also points to something even more insidious: snowpack is melting during winter itself. Snowpack has functioned like massive natural reservoirs. Glaciers millennia old are fast winnowing away in Glacier Park and could be gone by the 2030s. Read a 2017 overview from the U.S. Geological Survey here.
The retreat and steady disappearance of Boulder Glacier in Glacier National Park from 1932 to 2005.  Courtesy Greg Pederson/USGS
The retreat and steady disappearance of Boulder Glacier in Glacier National Park from 1932 to 2005. Courtesy Greg Pederson/USGS
Logan is also a passionate angler. Sooner or later, he says, lack of snowpack will register in the recharge occurring for natural underground aquifers, which are being pumped faster than they’re being replenished in some valleys with rising human population. “Water is what drives everything in the arid West, from ecology to recreation and, in many ways, our economy,” he says.

The reality is that it’s Mother Nature’s great natural water reservoirs and it’s been the foundation for how the inner West functions ecologically and economically: it’s skiing, fishing and hunting, rafting, fire prevention, irrigated alfalfa for cattle, livestock production, crop harvests, forest health, survival for wildlife and the unquestioned foundation of the multi-billion-dollar agriculture and tourism industries. And it’s the lifeblood of major metro areas like Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Literally, the impact of climate trickles down from snowpack in profound ways—mountain summits to the shops on Main Street in the New West. “We blindly assume that snowpack will always be there,” Schendler adds.

The altered West of the 2060s, experts note, will involve a steady transformation. Snow levels are retreating up mountains and for ski areas in the Rockies to remain economically viable, they will have to move lifts and snowmaking capacity above their current base operations.

Even then, they will struggle as climate change devastates skiing found at lower elevations such as in New England; skiing conditions in the Sierra and Wasatch will in decades to come no longer be reliable. That will have ripple effects in the Rockies, too.
Original image courtesy Colton Stiffler.  Edited by Mountain Journal staff
Original image courtesy Colton Stiffler. Edited by Mountain Journal staff
Schendler says other areas of the country have been the training grounds for skiers coming to the Rockies—from New England to the Midwest and California where millions of people have been introduced to skiing. But without winters they will no longer be feeder venues, meaning revenue for Rocky Mountain resorts will tumble.

“We are already watching the decline of coastal, drive-market ski resorts. And this is where future Western skiers cut their teeth,” Schendler says, noting that recruitment of younger skiers is not keeping up with the aging ski population.

“This is a crisis of our own creation that will not go away on its own,” wrote a panel of authors who completed a report on climate change, titled Unnatural Disaster, for the National Parks Conservation Association. “It will require decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through conservation and development of carbon-free power sources. There is growing scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions will need to fall by at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to avoid some of the most catastrophic effects of climate change.”

The question is: what can society do? Apart from phasing out old coal-fired power plants, regulating methane emissions and shifting to more renewable fuels, humans must change their attitudes, experts say.

“We are bearing witness to a catastrophe,” Metcalf warns. “In light of the profound, uncomfortable, and challenging truths and policy implications we have to come to grips with, incrementalism will not suffice. It’s a delusion being reinforced by a well-funded fossil fuel industry to distort the science. What we need demands leadership, guts and a forward-looking attitude that goes deeper than what’s convenient for us in the immediate now.”
"Incrementalism will not suffice. It’s a delusion being reinforced by a well-funded fossil fuel industry to distort the science. What we need demands leadership, guts and a forward-looking attitude that goes deeper than what’s convenient for us in the immediate now.” —businessman, mountaineer and conservationist Peter Metcalf
The ski industry, by striving to be carbon neutral, can reduce its fossil fuel footprint, Schendler says. But equally as valuable is the intergenerational message it sends to society, namely that recreationists need to stop behaving apathetically and focused on their own individual selfishness. Skiing isn’t cheap to maintain.

Adherents of the sport who own second homes in the vicinity of mountain towns live luxurious, influential lives. But they don’t live behind fortresses. The change that needs to happened must be systemic. The affluent have something more important than a luxurious lifestyle: they have, because of their money, political influence. They can call on political leaders they know to take action. Before any shift can occur, especially one that results in carbon reduction occurring on a large scale, the collective mindset must stop its denial.

A profound irony of dwelling today in a “post-fact” era, in which the credibility of science is under siege by fossil fuel industries trying to discredit it, is that science has been a north star for the ski industry. The very same scientific experts responsible for weather predictions, which have given the ski industry a framework for constructing successful business models, say the evidence of climate change is overwhelming.

The National Academies of Sciences, the gold standard in science, has refuted arguments advanced by climate change deniers. NAS was on the leading edge of confirming that smoking tobacco causes cancer, and it helped inform public policy used to combat acid rain (caused by burning sulfur-bearing coal) and depletion of the ozone layer (owed to using chlorofluorocarbons which were banned).

The battles to bring about change are often hard won, Schendler notes, pointing to the tobacco industry’s ploys to discredit scientists even while people were getting sick and dying from smoking, causing billions of dollars in medical costs, lost job productivity and human misery every year.

“Instead of addressing tobacco’s carcinogenic effects in the ‘60s when we knew about them, the industry obfuscated the problem, knowingly, for years, so they could bank more profit before the curtain came down on tobacco,” Schendler says. “They have very effectively injected doubt into the conversation. Speaking truthfully when it comes to the corporate sector, especially companies that affect the opinions of millions of people, is really important.”

The paradox of knowing what lies ahead is this: Even if we wake up and become aware, how can we confront a problem and alter the course of its effects? That’s where Schendler speaks of trajectories. Do you invest the resources or just plan to adapt? The latter, he says, condemns future generations to a lesser world of environmental, economic and social turmoil.

“The farce of those advancing the argument ‘we’ll just adapt’ is that you can’t adapt to a four or five degree rise because it’s a pathway to a 9-, 10- or 11-degree rise,” Schendler says. “All bets are off if you believe that adaptation can be easily managed in order to assure some kind of orderly transition.”

Saying this, Schendler is actually optimistic that systemic changes, if driven from the top of America’s public policy makers in Washington and by the business community, can prevent the worst from happening. Switching from coal to a bigger mix of renewables will not be economically devastating—in fact it is already happening widely in the US. He notes that renewable electricity from wind and solar is already coming in below the price of coal and gas. As a result, utilities are deploying more renewables just to bolster the bottom line. It’s happening all over.

“I’ve learned that you can’t be shrill and come off as a hand-wringing crazy,” Schendler says. He explains that despite noble talk about “the future” residing in the center of America’s civil vocabulary, thinking ahead is actually too much of an abstraction for most people to handle.

“On the other hand,” he notes, “if you understate reality, then it will result, at best, in half measures that don’t come close to the actions that are necessary.”

Schendler, thinking about his own family, refuses to be cynical. He lives for hope. “The good news is that while we’re admittedly facing a big problem, we have both the policy tools and the technology on the shelf today to fix the problem. What we really need is for leaders in government to realize the benefits of moving now—both in terms of international competitiveness and avoided cost. Some of the biggest bipartisan policy solutions—like carbon taxes—have bipartisan support.”

° ° °

Yes, it is the 2060s. Your self-driving vehicle arrives in Big Sky in the middle of winter to vacant stretches of broken asphalt with weeds poking through what held thousands of cars daily into the early 2030s. You see handfuls of diehards.

In a rain jacket, you catch a chairlift up Lone Peak and still are on barren ground a mile and a half in elevation. Eventually, you reach the slush zone where artificial snowmaking has been deployed, using treated sewage water, in a decade-long losing battle against perpetual thaw.
To our descendants, will scenes like this one, taken on a slope in Greater Yellowstone, seem like only a distant dream? And while we talk nobly about doing things for the good of future generations, what kind of world are we creating? Photo courtesy Forest Service Northern Region
To our descendants, will scenes like this one, taken on a slope in Greater Yellowstone, seem like only a distant dream? And while we talk nobly about doing things for the good of future generations, what kind of world are we creating? Photo courtesy Forest Service Northern Region

Finally, above 9,000 feet, you find the artifact known as winter—a rocky stretch of wild natural snow. Here on the summit, the base is 20 hardpacked inches (a tiny fragment of what existed in your grandparents’ time). Still, you let out a whoop of half-hearted euphoria.

Experts with the National Academies of Sciences warned that what’s frightening are the unknowns, including the possibility of domino effects feeding warming even faster, such as melting of the Arctic permafrost that releases more carbon or even compounding extreme weather events wreaking havoc and causing unrest.

They recently wrote, “Humanity’s effect on the Earth system, through the large-scale combustion of fossil fuels and widespread deforestation and the resulting release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as through emissions of other greenhouse gases and radiatively active substances from human activities, is unprecedented. There is significant potential for humanity’s effect on the planet to result in unanticipated surprises and a broad consensus that the further and faster the Earth system is pushed towards warming, the greater the risk of such surprises."

And the NAS authors added, “There are at least two types of potential surprises: compound events, where multiple extreme climate events occur simultaneously or sequentially (creating greater overall impact), and critical threshold or tipping point events, where some threshold is crossed in the climate system (that leads to large impacts). The probability of such surprises—some of which may be abrupt and/or irreversible—as well as other more predictable but difficult-to-manage impacts, increases as the influence of human activities on the climate system increases.”

On the other hand, the authors conclude: “With significant reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature could be limited to 3.6°F (2°C) or less.”

Schendler refuses to capitulate. He notes the legendary selfless attitude of “The Greatest Generation” during World War II. And he points out that when Earth’s essential protective ozone layer was vanishing two generations ago, policymakers took action based on the science, and phased out the chemicals imperiling our survival at the time. “They took brave action because they refused to accept the prospect of doomsday,” he says.

With gallow’s humor, he laughs at Zinke’s characterization that not burning fossil fuels is un-American and immoral. The worst kind of moral sin, in Schendler’s mind, is for elders who consciously knew better, who knew they needed to sacrifice in order to give their children the best world possible, to walk away from their personal responsibility.

Fifty years from now, five months of winter—and the human economies and outdoor traditions built on it—could be melted back significantly; summers, meanwhile, will be radically different. Oh yeah, that allusion to great grandparents in the twenty teens? Those people in the photographs, Schendler notes, are us.

EPILOGUE

Some findings—verbatim— from the most recent National Climate Assessment released in 2018 by the National Academies of Sciences:

° Human activity, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid 20th century;

° We are living in the warmest time in the history of modern civilization and it is heating up; Some 16 of the warmest years on record globally occurred in the last 17 years, with 1998 being the exception;

° Since 1980, the cost of extreme weather/climate events for the US has exceeded $1.1 trillion; therefore, better understanding of the frequency and severity of these events in the context of a changing climate is warranted;

° Global average sea level has risen 7 to 8 inches since 1900 with half of the rise occurring since 1993 and is greater than any rise going back 2800 years. Global average sea levels are expected to continue to rise—by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1 to 4 feet by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out. Sea level rise in the future will be higher than the global average on the East and Gulf coasts of the U.S;

° Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover extent, North America maximum snow depth, snow water equivalent in the western US, and extreme snowfall years in the southern and western US have all declined, while extreme snowfall years in parts of the northern US have increased.

° Substantial reductions in western U.S. winter and spring snowpack are projected as the climate warms. Earlier spring melt and reduced snow water equivalent have been formally attributed to human-induced warming and will very likely be exacerbated as the climate continues to warm. Under higher scenarios, and assuming no change to current water resources management, chronic, long-duration hydrological drought is increasingly possible by the end of this century Future decreases in surface soil moisture from human activities over most of the United States are likely as the climate warms under the higher scenarios;

° The world’s oceans are currently absorbing more than a quarter of the CO2 emitted to the atmosphere annually from human activities, making them more acidic with potential detrimental impacts to marine ecosystems. Higher-latitude ocean systems typically have a lower buffering capacity against changing acidity, exhibiting seasonally corrosive conditions sooner than low-latitude systems, especially for plankton, a key building block of the ocean food chain. The rate of acidification is unparalleled in at least the past 66 million years;

° Arctic sea ice loss is expected to continue through the 21st century, very likely resulting in nearly sea ice-free late summers by the 2040s.
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Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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