In the face of climate change, Park City, Utah, has become a leader among ski towns. Is it enough?
Published in POWDER Magazine (45.4) | December 2017
Overnight, it snowed a foot. After weeks of warming, the storm was a gift from the cold, white north to the eastern edge of the Wasatch. Snow fell in never-ending patterns: swirling helixes, angled sheets, waves catching a breath before cascading down in chaos. The day felt more like January than the beginning of March, and the weather report told us to savor it.
The bootpack to the top of Ninety-Nine-90 at Park City Mountain Resort was swarming with skiers. A local land conservationist named Caitlin Willard slipped out the backcountry gate to find quieter pastures, and I followed her to a small, unexpected stash. Like most skiers in Park City, Utah, Willard, 34, is a transplant. While studying environmental sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she saw a story in a magazine that listed the top ski towns in North America. She picked Park City mostly because it wasn’t in Colorado or California, but also because she had an affinity for park skiing (she admitted to wearing tall-Ts and described herself as a “born-again backcountry skier”). She moved in 2006, found a shared room for $400 a month, and balanced odd jobs with skiing.
In the years that followed, rent doubled, Willard started a 9-to-5 job at a land trust, and Park City became plagued with issues that are universal to ski towns across the West: It is hard to make a living; there is no affordable housing; real estate development is incessant; and climate change is slowly, but consistently, melting the snowpack. One reason that Willard stayed—Park City has decided to do something about the latter.
Last year, city officials pledged to reduce Park City’s carbon footprint to zero by 2032. An accelerated five-year deadline for city operations to cut out carbon ranks as one of the most ambitious climate change goals in the country. City leaders are still finishing the plan, which will include new solar and wind farms and a renewable energy grid for residences, businesses, and Deer Valley and Park City ski areas. Electric city buses and a new transit plan will take combustion engines off the road. Thousands of acres of undeveloped land—Willard’s expertise—will be preserved, curbing development and pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.
Willard shared some details of the emerging plan and her contribution to preserve open space as we navigated our way to the top of a light-and-dry powder field. She wiggled turns down a sheltered, untracked slope, and I shadowed her line. At the bottom, we put on our skins for another run.
“The thing that I think is going to help save the world is people changing their culture, changing their habits, and realizing that things are not always going to be easy and convenient,” says Willard. “You’re going to do the world a huge favor if you take the bus.”
At a time when the U.S., the largest cumulative emitter of carbon in history, is firing scientists and dismantling decades of environmental progress, cities and states are mobilizing to take climate action. Hawaii, the first state to go all-in on clean energy, is harnessing renewable resources—ocean, sun, wind—to power the state. Likewise, Aspen, Colorado, runs off a blend of hydroelectric, wind, solar, methane generation, and biofuel. In the same vein as Park City, Salt Lake City, Moab, and South Lake Tahoe in California have all pledged to reduce their dependency on oil, natural gas, and coal.
Ski towns making the shift to renewable energy makes sense. They are some of the most vulnerable municipalities in the age of climate change. Low snow years between 2000 and 2010 cost the ski industry $1 billion in revenue, according to a well-known 2012 study from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters that forecasts the impact of climate change on winter tourism. The loss leads to vacant hotel rooms, restaurants, grocery stores, and affects every other business connected to the industry. Jobs vanish; water districts downstream of the mountains—including 60 million people in the West who rely on snowmelt for their drinking water—run dry. River habitat, forests, farms, and reservoirs all suffer as well.
When I visited Park City last winter, the first of several extended stays over the course of the winter and spring, the ski area had plenty of snow. Skiers told me stories of waking up to 12 inches one day and 14 inches the next for an entire month. Town was packed with tourists wearing name-brand puffies and rental ski equipment, and locals were reaping the rewards of the cash that comes with a good winter. Those winters, though, will be a rarity in a few decades, scientists now predict.
Current climate models estimate that winters in the future will become increasingly wet, warm, short, and volatile. Glaciers in North Cascades National Park, home to a third of the glaciers in the Lower 48, have lost half their mass in the last 100 years—about 5 billion gallons of meltwater. Since 1955, the Western U.S. has lost 23 percent of its snowpack. Not only is more precipitation falling as rain, but snow is covering less ground, too. Compared to the ’70s, the last decade has lost 122,000 square miles of snow cover—about the size of New Mexico.
“Our mountain snowpack is going to turn to a rain-driven hydrology,” says Brian McInerney, a hydrologist who has worked for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration in Salt Lake City for 27 years. As a hydrologist, his life’s work is water. He watches it, studies it, directs its flow. He is also the Salt Lake City forecast office’s designated “climate change person.” His job is to do the research and present the science, and the science indicates that Utah’s water cycle is facing an imminent and profound shift.
One study looking at climate change specifically in Park City estimates that the average temperature will rise 9 degrees Fahrenheit by 2075. The snowpack by the end of the century, on the world’s current trajectory, is estimated to be zero. McInerney explains it like this: “The climate of Salt Lake City will become the climate of Park City." (The difference between them is 3,000 feet in elevation.)
Some snow will still accumulate in the highest elevations of the Wasatch, however, it will likely last for a short, two-month window—not long enough for a ski resort to be profitable. The effects of climate change, and adaptation, are already visible. Almost 90 percent of ski areas nationwide rely on snowmaking, an expense that can suck up to half their energy bill and sends carbon into the air.
“That’s a dramatic, dramatic shift, a totally different climate than what we’re used to,” says Brian Lazar, the deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the author of the 2009 Park City climate change study. Lazar presented his findings to a thousand people at a forum in Park City, a municipality with a population of 8,300 that swells to more than a quarter million tourists over the winter. It was a call to action. “I don’t think there are any illusions that if Park City becomes a totally solar run ski resort, they are going to reverse climate change,” says Lazar. ”But they are trying to lead by example in a high-profile industry. I don’t discount those efforts.”
There is still hope for snow. A study that published quietly last spring by the Environmental Protection Agency and a group of researchers in Boulder, Colorado, concluded that if steps are taken to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ski seasons will be shorter but the industry will survive. If global warming continues unchecked, though, climate change will shave weeks off fall and spring ski seasons, costing the industry billions in revenue. Which is to say, there is a choice. And it is perhaps the most important choice a ski town will ever make.
The man turning Park City’s carbon reduction goals into reality is Luke Cartin, the town's environmental sustainability manager. At 37, Cartin is a Northeastern-bred telemark skier and father of two who skis on his lunch break. He started his career in Vail’s environmental sustainability department, and transferred to Park City when Vail acquired the ski resort in 2015. He began his job at city hall a year ago. Auden Schendler, Aspen’s vice president of sustainability, calls Cartin “a ski industry refugee working in ski town government.” He is also an optimist who speaks energy policy fluently and backs his words up with action. I met Cartin in the middle of a maze of ski racks and rental gear at the base area of Park City Mountain Resort. We grabbed our skis and I followed him through the lift corral and up the hill.
“We want to displace fossil fuels,” he says as we loaded onto a chair. “The only way we can do that is by building new stuff and shutting down the old stuff.”
His first week on the job, Cartin started negotiating with Rocky Mountain Power—the utility giant that serves 1.1 million people in Utah, Wyoming, and parts of Idaho—to stop fossil fuel-generated electricity and hook Park City up to new solar and wind farms. In Utah, energy is a $20.9 billion industry, with 98.2 percent generated by natural gas, coal, and oil. But that is about to change. Rocky Mountain Power and its parent company, PacifiCorp, have mapped a plan to shut down all 24 of their coal-fired plants by 2046. The utility giant has also committed all investment through 2029 to wind and solar (with the exception of one potential natural gas plant).
“Utilities are under a lot more change than people realize or understand,” says Cartin. “Once you understand that, you say, ‘Hey, my community can help shape the future of my utility.’ Instead of just letting them decide their own future, you can say, ‘We want to have input.’”
Transportation is responsible for almost as many greenhouse gas emissions as electricity use. The reality is, to get to Park City you have to drive. Every day, 40,000 cars cruise down Parley’s Summit on Interstate 80 toward the ski town. To get cars off the road, Cartin is doubling down on public transit. Six electric buses now shuttle passengers between I-80 and downtown for free; another seven are slated to start driving next summer. Park City launched the first e-bike share in the country, with 88 bikes distributed at stations around town. They will also soon start charging for parking in a garage downtown—despite some grumbling from locals.
All of the above gets Park City close to a zero-carbon footprint, says Cartin. Open space conservation is essential to clearing their goal. “It’s all private land,” says Willard, pointing to the salt-and-pepper hills surrounding town. “A lot of people don’t realize that open space isn’t protected space.” In June, thanks to a bond approved by voters and six months of fundraising, Park City and a coalition of government agencies, nonprofits, land trusts, and individuals raised $38 million to purchase 1,350 acres of forested land near town for conservation, bringing their open space inventory to 10,000 acres. Using infrared technology at Utah State University’s GIS lab, Cartin calculated that Park City’s conservation efforts now draw 7,868 tons of carbon out of the atmosphere every year. Combined with renewable energy and efficiencies (like carpooling incentives), that's enough open space to counter all of the greenhouse gas emissions for which the municipal government is responsible.
Lowering emissions and buying electric buses are not cheap, and Park City is fortunate to have a wealthy tax base. (On Forbes’ list of most expensive zip codes, Park City ranks higher than Sun Valley, Telluride, and Jackson.) Cartin’s negotiations with Rocky Mountain Power require customers to pay for new solar and wind infrastructure—fast becoming the cheapest sources of energy available—through their electric bills. The city has also applied for grants and energy prizes. But the key to financing the transition, says Cartin, is municipal budgeting. “Our community had to buy buses anyway, but now we’ve committed to only buying electric buses,” he says. “We’ve shifted our focus, our North Star. We’re doing everything in the least carbon intensive way, the closest to net zero as we can. It’s a systemic change.”
An hour into our ski, the weather changed abruptly. The wind picked up, and the snow turned to half slush, half ice crud. We hiked a small ridgeline for the hell of it, and Cartin sent a steep line between a stand of aspen trees.
“You can view climate change as either a problem or a challenge,” he says. “In a problem, you’re a victim. You give up power over it. It’s outside of your control. A challenge is a way to reframe it. It’s more like a chess match. Once you make that switch of going from a problem to a challenge, you feel empowered.”
Canyons at Park City, operated by Vail Resorts, is next-level posh. A road switchbacks up the mountainside and drops guests off at any one of a number of giant luxury hotels. They are all ski-in, ski-out. The Hyatt Centric is in a courtyard at the top. I handed the keys to my 1998 Subaru to valet and a bellman showed me through a set of double glass doors. A PR representative emailed a list of the Hyatt’s recent eco renovations, which included things like recycled carpet, LED bulbs, and sustainable paint. That night, snowflakes started to fall on a natural-gas-powered bonfire, which had long been abandoned. From inside the lobby, I watched the flames flicker in the snow, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much difference a recycled carpet made when natural gas was burning to warm a ghost.
The contradiction is an example of the extent of Park City’s regulatory influence. The town can update the code for city buildings, but they can’t control the residential energy code that can alter things like heated driveways. All Cartin can do is hook those homes up to the renewable grid, but it's up to homeowners to monitor how much energy they use. Another challenge is the 23 million airline passengers that landed at the Salt Lake City airport last year, a quandary that no one seems to have a feasible solution for yet.
Where the city laws end, Cartin hopes that business owners and residents will pick up the momentum. Across town, a smaller hotel, the Treasure Mountain Inn, established by City Councilman Andy Beerman, who is in the 2017 mayoral election, has achieved carbon neutrality since 2008. From the street, the Inn looks like an old-timey Western boarding house, complete with a façade and marquee lights. Inside, it is anything but. Beerman replaced 2,000 lighbulbs in the hotel, removed the swimming pool, installed solar panels, and invested in wind credits to counter remaining emissions.
“We feel good about doing these things,” says Beerman. “It’s not going to make a single dent in the planet. But if we can go out there and show other communities how to do it and get hundreds of communities to join in, that’s a movement.”
I wanted to see for myself how Park City’s ideas are spreading beyond city boundaries, so Cartin and Willard introduced me to Utah’s Summit County Councilman Chris Robinson, who is a bridge between Park City’s liberal island and the conservative-minded, rural county that surrounds it. The three of them are also avid anglers, and they used me as an excuse to cast their lines in a stocked pond on a ranch that Robinson owns, far from the politics that consume their days.
A fifth-generation Utahn, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, a Democrat, and one of the largest landowners in the state, Robinson is actively working to bring Park City's ideas to the rest of Summit County, which has a legacy of silver mining, farming, ranching, and harvesting timber. He is bringing solar and wind generation to private properties, steering the county toward a reduced carbon footprint, and collaborating with land trusts (including the one Willard works for) to conserve open space.
“Park City is a great leader,” says Robinson. “We at the county have a bigger job…Every rancher and agriculturalist on the planet feels a huge sense of stewardship. If they take care of the land, it will take care of them. Now, the problem is really knowing what taking care of the land means.”
Willard, Cartin, Robinson, and I fished for the better part of the day. The rainbow trout were plentiful and every now and then, someone’s line would grow taught. It was my first time fly fishing, and I jumped when I hooked one. Robinson told me to keep my rod in the air, to put tension on the line, to reel the trout in swiftly. I was not graceful, but I got the fish to the boat and with help, freed it from the hook. The fish’s green-speckled belly was slick, and I could feel its strength as it tried to get away. For a second, it felt like I was interrupting a natural order. Then I submerged my hands into the water and let it go.