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Why is Vail playing both sides on climate change?

Ski executives have sent thousands in political contributions to climate-change deniers

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Last month, Powder Magazine published an eye-opening report that detailed American ski industry leaders' connections to noted climate-change deniers.

Vail Resorts, which operates 13 ski areas worldwide, including Whistler Blackcomb, was not spared in the exposé. Porter Fox's reporting found that the Vail Resorts Political Action Committee (PAC) has "sent thousands of dollars to the campaigns of stalwart climate change deniers Reps. Cory Gardner (R-Col.), Christ Stewart (R-Utah), Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Scott Tipton (R-Col.), and Tom McClintock (R-Calif.)" Several top company executives, including CEO Rob Katz and former CEO John Redmond, have all donated to the PAC.

Another Vail PAC, the Vail Resorts Employee PAC, sent House Speaker and climate denier Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) $5,000, while the Park Record reported this summer that the Vail Resorts Management Company sent $3,000 to help re-elect Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who has gone on record calling climate-change science "a little debatable."

In an industry that has seen firsthand how devastating the impacts of global warming can be, why do ski resorts continually shoot themselves in the foot by supporting leaders who refuse to acknowledge the reality in front of them?

"I think you can have a great relationship and conversation with these folks, but you don't have to give them money," said climate-change activist and Aspen Skiing Company's VP of sustainability Auden Schendler in an email.

"What if these folks were racists instead of climate deniers? Would you give them money and make the same argument that it's just reality?"

In defence of its political contributions, Vail Resorts issued a statement following the Nov. 3 article, saying that both sides are needed at the table. (Vail declined to be interviewed for this article.)

"The Employee PAC believes in openly discussing and working with elected officials of both parties, who agree and disagree with us on issues, and we do not shy away from raising important topics with them, including advocating for taking action on climate change," read a statement, in part, from Vail's VP of corporate communications, Kelly Ladyga. "...(I)t is completely inappropriate to suggest that other executives, owners or employees of other ski resorts who contribute to a Republican candidate takes away from that resort's commitment to fighting climate change and broadly protecting the environment."

The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), which itself sent money through its PAC in 2012 to Bishop and climate-change opponent Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), also jumped into the fray. The crux of its argument? It's all part of playing the political game.

"The ski industry, like most industries, donates to both Republicans and Democrats. This comes as no surprise to anyone who understands how Washington works and the complexity of regulatory issues that industries face," wrote Geraldine Link, the NSAA's director of public policy, in a letter to Powder.

The foundation of Link's defence is that the ski industry faces myriad regulatory issues and cannot stand to take a single-issue approach to advocacy. She highlights the efforts of Representatives Barrasso, Bishop, McClintock and Tipton for their support of "key ski industry initiatives such as year-round activities and protection of water rights."

For Fox, Link's statement is more proof that the ski industry remains content with eating its own tail.

"Ski resorts have essentially become real-estate companies — that's where the real money is — and they are supporting senators, like (climate denier) Paul Cook in California, who pushed through the land swap and had Barack Obama sign it so that Mammoth could rebuild its Mammoth Mountain Inn," Fox said in an interview with Pique.

"Ski resorts have to play the game if they want to make a profit in the short term. Our point is: why are we not thinking about the long term? What exactly are you going to do with that hotel in 80 years when your ski area is melting out in February?"

It's hard to deny that global warming has become the biggest threat looming over the industry. Between 1999 and 2010, North American ski resorts lost a whopping $1 billion and up to 27,000 jobs due to lower-than-average snow years. In the face of such an existential crisis, industry executives can't afford to rest on their heels. More often than not, however, resorts are more concerned with winning the ever-important PR battle, Fox said.

"The problem resorts have with climate change is a marketing problem," he said. "They look bad when they're not doing anything about it, so their initiative is all based on how they look, what their appearance is. If they appear to be on the right side with lots of awareness signs and posters and various sponsorships, a minimum investment with maximum visibility, they're doing their job. They're crushing it. That's not advocacy, that's not going to move the needle."

The true problem, Schendler believes, is that ski industry executives are either incapable or unwilling to fully recognize the enormity of the challenge ahead. As much as resorts like to point to their latest green initiatives as proof they're on the right side of the fight, they often amount to little more than a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

"To be honest, I don't think most people in business and government actually understand climate science or the nature of the problem. If they did, they wouldn't be taking the token actions they've been taking, they wouldn't be funding deniers, they would be in the streets marching," said Schendler.

"We've been very cavalier and flip in our response to this great crisis — treating it like we might a litter problem. The approach most businesses have taken on climate — basically, cutting carbon footprint — is part and parcel of not understanding the monster we're fighting. It's as if we brought our Nerf gun to fight Godzilla, but we think it's going to do a swell job of neutralizing him.

"If a business' leadership isn't using voice and other leverage like press coverage, social media, outreach to guests and op-eds to push on the climate issue, it's not doing anything meaningful on climate."

For Part 1 of this article, describing climate initiatives by Whistler Blackcomb, go to www.piquenewsmagazine.com, Dec. 8, 2016.

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