We don't deny these attributes (and indeed many of us here are avid skiers!). Colorado's identity, after all, is indelibly intertwined with skiing. But as climate change increasingly nips at each end of the ski season -- forcing later openings and earlier closings despite massive investments in snow making equipment -- we at AMRDI wonder if the current ski area economy, and the communities involved, are adequately prepared to adapt. Ski areas have resisted to address traffic congestion on Interstate 70, have increasingly expanded their acreage and operations on public lands, and have resisted Federal efforts to regulate water usage in ski area operations (a water intensive exercise in an increasingly water-stressed region). Thus despite progressive efforts by individual ski areas (including water capture, recycling or sourcing from treated sewage at times), collective action has been slow in coming, and remains centered more on zero-sum survival strategies, or shareholder returns, rather than sustainability.
While the environmental debates play out, AMRDI is especially concerned about a changing social landscape. Throughout Colorado, ski areas and ancillary services depend on a low-wage, frequently foreign-born, labor supply. This same population can not afford to live in the community, and thus commutes great distances for work. Ongoing work by AMRDI (early results are forthcoming, and will be presented at the SW Political Science Association Annual Conference in Denver, April 2015) traces how a combination of documentation status, low-incomes, long commute times, social exclusion and a lack of health insurance (combined with virtually no representation in government or non-profit leadership) negatively affects health and well-being among these workers. Apart from health and vulnerability concerns, resort communities are increasingly fragmented: A low-wage labor supply is economically, socially and spatially segregated from local amenities, and from the resources of wealthier resort hubs. When these divides span counties -- as they often do in Colorado -- more stressed, lower-income local governments are providing human services, and addressing the inherent complications of poverty, for populations that serve the wealthier resort-hub communities (which are in turn absolved from providing the same degree of services). This evolving social dimension of ski resort economies adds an additional layer of vulnerability to the system -- not only are resorts increasingly susceptible to warmer, drier winters, but are dependent on a marginalized and tenuous labor supply, and furthermore one that has not been adequately integrated into the local social fabric.
Skiing is important to Colorado, and we want ski areas to thrive. But Colorado needs to reorganize: so that policies are analyzed on a regional basis, cutting across county boundaries when necessary; and so that ski areas act as stakeholders, alongside other water users and local governments to envision a future from a systems approach. Just as climate change poses a threat to ski areas, so does the unsustainable reliance on an under-served and marginalized labor base. Community resilience and adaptation of the Colorado ski resort economy is going to require a more open-minded and inclusive approach than has thus far been apparent.