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Hot topic for December: What will we do if snow doesn’t show up?

December 12th, 2014 Posted in Outdoors

Story and photos by Jared Dangerfield

CACHE VALLEY — Snow, that magical white stuff some people can’t seem to get enough of. It starts to come as the days get shorter and the temperatures get colder. But what if it stopped coming?

“Obviously snow is so key to our world. I always thought it’s kind of unique to be so tied to the elements, but in some ways it’s terrible,” said Travis Seeholzer, part owner of Beaver Mountain Resort.  “It’s like being a farmer, you’re at the whim of Mother Nature.” He says he is a weather junkie and is always checking up on climate studies and forecasts.

A snowboarder beholds the beautiful snow at Beaver Mountain. Photo by Jared Dangerfield.

Seeholzer says some people are telling him snow might not be around much longer.

“You definitely look at it and think, are we going to be skiing here in 70 years or 50 years?” he said. “Through my lifetime in Cache Valley we’ve seen less snow in the valley and I’ve always wondered if I was just little or were the snow banks really that big and I think they were.”

Robert Gillies, Utah’s state climatologist, recently published a study that found snow depth has gradually been decreasing over the past 50 years, while precipitation has been increasing. He said this is the result of warmer temperatures causing rain rather than snow.

“There has been a shift to rain because the atmosphere is getting warmer in general,” he said. “There is no doubt about it, that climate change we are encompassing is driven by greenhouse gases.”

Gillies says northern Utah will start to see greater variable changes, with sharp drops of cold and spikes of warmth, but overall he says, from a water standpoint, we should be all right in Utah.

“I actually think Utah is one of the best places to live in terms of climate change,” he said. “Utah is reasonable well placed. Not so great for ski industry, but if you are getting more water, than all you have to do is capture the water.”

Although warmer temperatures will affect runoff and water levels, local businesses and the tourism industry are hoping the snow will keep falling.

Beaver Mountain opened Dec 10, which is 11 days earlier than opening day last year, but later than years past. Seeholzer says 11 days might not seem like much, but when your season is only four months long it is a big deal.

“We really make our income in four months of the year and we pay bills 12 months,” he said.

For Seeholzer his livelihood is dependent on Mother Nature and the amount of snow she decides will come, but he said he has noticed how other businesses rely on the snow to sell their products as well.

“If you’ve been to tire stores and hardware stores, when we go buy shovels it’s a huge deal for snow-blower sales,” he said.

In November Porter Fox, editor for Powder Magazine, came to Logan and talked about the decreasing snow and what would happen to economies if snow was taken out of the picture.

“In the last 10 years the difference between a good snow year and a bad snow year has cost the winter sports tourism sector over a billion dollars,” Fox said. “In Utah you get 4 million skier visits a year, which equates to $750 million added value to your economy. You lose 14 percent of that in a bad snow year, so you’re talking about $150 million and over 1,000 jobs.

“It’s not just the guy spinning the lifts, it’s the guy that has the restaurant at the resort, it’s the folks at the head of the valley selling sandwiches to people, the 7-11 at the bottom of Big Cottonwood, all of those people, the airports, everyone that is coming into this state to go skiing. Utah is a beautiful place, but I hate to tell you they will go somewhere else,” Fox said.

In Cache Valley, the visitors bureau doesn’t aim so much to bring skiers in from out of state as to target Salt Lake residents, hoping to lure them up north to places like Beaver Mountain and Hardware Ranch.

“Most of our promotion we do in the winter is in the Wasatch Front,” said Mike Bullock, with the Cache Valley Visitors Bureau. “Other times of the year we advertise in national publications, but in the winter we pretty much confine our promotion to the Wasatch Front.”

For the visitors bureau, which gets a lot of its funding based on the number of people staying in hotels throughout the valley, the winter months are typically slower. Bullock says they don’t expect people from outside the state to flock to Cache County, but they do hope to attract residents and visitors of Salt Lake to at least come and see the elk at Hardware Ranch.

“If we can get them up here to go see the elk, which a lot of the easterners have never seen something that big, then possibly we can say, ‘now you’re here, try our ski areas,’” Bullock said. “Winter tourism in Cache Valley is a hard sell because we don’t have the mega resorts like they have down at Park City and Salt Lake City. We do the best we can, but we don’t expect too much in the way of tourism.”

The increased use of social media sites has contributed to spreading the word about events and happenings in Cache County. Seeholzer says he has noticed it helps keep people informed with snow conditions as well as getting them excited for the season.

Right now a popular hashtag floating around social media sites is #prayforsnow, but it is being used mostly by adrenaline junkies hoping to get “dumped on,” so they can get their money out of the thousands of dollars worth of equipment they bought in the off season. The hashtag is being used nationally and even in Logan the phrase is showing up. On the front page of The Sportsman’s website is a picture of a “pray for snow” sign.

Marc Wilson tries on ski boots at The Sportsman. Photo by Jared Dangerfield.

Mark Fjeldsted, one of the owners of The Sportsman, said with the early snowstorms the valley received this year, they saw an increase in sales as snow enthusiasts got excited.

“In a heavy snow year people are a lot more prepared to buy,” he said. “We prefer to have a heavy, wet and cold snow year. We just hope winter does what it’s supposed to do.”

Fjeldsted said the store receives about 25 percent of its annual revenue during the winter months, but said he has to play it by ear when it comes to how much and what type of gear to order. Powder skis, usually referred to as “fat skis,” are wider from top to bottom than an all-mountain ski and are what Fjeldsted says carry more risk financially.

“We might not get another drop of snow this whole year, we probably will, but we don’t know how much,” he said. “You can’t rely on it, so you make decisions on things that are more reliable. Everyone needs clothing.”

Even Seeholzer says he notices after a storm all of the fat skis come out, but says if there isn’t a lot of snow they are put in the closet.

Seeholzer also said people were getting anxious when the first few storms hit Cache Valley and were asking him when Beaver was going to open.

“When the majority of this snow fell a couple of weeks ago, everyone thought we were going to open the next day,” he said. “But then it’s been 48 degrees up here for the past 10 days, if we would have been skiing this snow and working it, it might not be so pretty.”

He says at Beaver they try to provide the best possible conditions for skiers because their customers are selective as to what snow they want to ski on. Seeholzer has always been leery of opening early if the snow is subpar because he says it’s hard to get people back when more snow does come. He notices this with individual day-ticket sales, but season-pass holders are the ones who will typically come no matter what kind of snow it is. He says season-pass sales are a huge part of their revenue and they usually give out over 5,000 a year.

“So much of our business is based on season pass sales and people obviously are looking at it like, ‘how long is my season,’” he said.

During the 2010-2011 winter Beaver was hit with major storms constantly, and Seeholzer said they only saw the sun maybe 40 days the whole winter. What surprised him is they didn’t have more people coming up to the mountain on a daily basis, but since they were able to open earlier (Dec. 3) and stay open longer, they saw an increase of traffic outside the typical season.

“It was those additional days that really made us have such a good year,” he said.

But if the temperatures continue to rise and less snow falls in the mountain, Gillies, who enjoys cross-country skiing in Green Canyon—that is, when there is snow—says people will still be able to recreate, but it might not be in the same way. “Instead of skiing in the mountains you will have to walk or mountain bike or go where they make snow or go to higher elevations,” he said.

Seeholzer says he does worry about the future of the resort, but tries to not lose sleep over it.

“It comes and goes, I don’t know that we are in panic mode, it’s weather, you live and breath with it,” he said. “I try not to stress over it because there’s nothing I can do about it. I love to see it snow, but I can’t change it.”

The valley has been hit with warm temperatures lately, but the National Weather Service is predicting snow in the weekend forecast, but how much snow will continue to fall this year and in the coming decades still remains unknown.

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