Nation & World

As climate change zaps their snow, winter sports fans seek to change Washington

A world-class snowboarder, former Navy SEAL Josh Jespersen served for four years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last year, he set a single-winter record by climbing and boarding down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks. When not chasing powder or working as a security guard, Jespersen takes wounded veterans on outdoor treks.

Now he's undertaking a different kind of expedition — urging mountain-state politicians to take seriously the threat of climate change, and working to vote them out of office if they don't.

"This is an issue that is really galvanizing young people," said Jespersen, 31, who is part of Protect Our Winters (POW), a national group made up of winter sports enthusiasts, resorts and outdoor gear retailers. But he said it's hard for them to focus on climate change when so many other issues are competing for attention.

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Josh Jespersen smiles upon reaching the summit of Kelso Mountain in Colorado Jon Krakauer Courtesy of Protect Our Winters

Jespersen and other Protect Our Winters advocates are hoping 2018 will be a watershed year for Millennial voters, with climate change as an issue in the mid-term congressional elections. Founded as a non-profit a decade ago by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones, Protect Our Winters recently added a sister non-profit, the Protect Our Winters Action Fund, that could directly engage in the 2018 campaign.

Lindsay Bourgoine, manager of advocacy and campaigns for Protect our Winters, said the group this year is focusing on gubernatorial and congressional races in California, Nevada, Montana and Colorado.

"Those are places with large snow-sports industries and tourism economies that depend on snow and winter," said Bourgoine. "We have constituencies in those states who really care about climate change and where it is crucial to elect climate-friendly officials."

Surveys are mixed on whether millennials — those born roughly from 1981 to 1996 — are more concerned about climate change than the U.S. population as a whole. A poll last year by the Pew Research Center suggested that they were, but other surveys have found little noticeable difference, according to Anthony Leiserowitz, a Yale University research scientist who has analyzed public opinion on climate change for a decade.

For Protect Our Winters, the good news is that Republican millenials tend to be more worried about a warming planet than other Republicans, and young people in general are more politically engaged than they were in recent elections, Leiserowitz said.

"Youth participation in the vote is going to be higher in 2018," said Leiserowitz, who notes Protect Our Winters isn't alone in highlighting climate change issues. California billionaire Tom Steyer is pouring money into his Next Gen campaign, which is engaging the youth vote on five issues, one of which is global warming.

According to a 2017 report by the Outdoor Industry Association, there are roughly 9.3 million active alpine skiers and 7.6 million snowboarders nationwide, the largest subset of winter sports enthusiasts. To reach these groups and expand its reach in Washington, Protect Our Winters has recruited scores of winter sports athletes to spread its message.

One of these is Alexi "Lexi" duPont, a 29-year-old mountain free skier from Sun Valley, Idaho, who soared to fame after appearing in several ski films by the late Warren Miller. Dupont has more than 23,000 followers on Instagram, where she chronicles her environmental activism and outdoor adventures. She's also talked to Idaho school assemblies about climate change, and has helped start an educational video series called Down to Earth to connect students with the melting of ice caps in the Arctic.

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Lexi Dupont, a celebrity mountain free skier, smiles while skiing at the Kiroro resort in Japan in 2014. Grant Gunderson Protect Our Winters

A descendent of the French family that built its wealth on chemicals, duPont says her activism is partly a response to her family's industrial legacy. But she also grew concerned about climate change after experiencing numerous winters in Idaho with reduced snowfall and ever-earlier melt-offs.

"Over the last ten years, the impacts (of climate change) keep coming faster and faster," said duPont, adding she feels an urgency to act. "We are the first generation to witness it and we may be the last one that can do anything about it."

Like duPont, Jespersen said he's also experienced the effects of warming, including in Pennsylvania, his home state.

"I grew up skiing in the Poconos," he said. "I remember that as a kid, the winters were pretty good. I don’t see that anymore, and I saw it changing over time."

Jespersen joined the Navy when he was 18, underwent two years of training as a SEAL and then served in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Returning to the United States, he moved to Colorado, where he started a non-profit to honor fallen soldiers, called Memorial Mission Day. He also started touring the alpine regions of the state, taking note of numerous closed ski runs.

Colorado was once home to more than 100 commercial ski areas. Those numbers have dropped to a reported 26, partly because of competition from bigger resorts.

According to Jespersen, lack of snow has contributed to some of these closures, particularly of mom-and-pop operations that sit at a lower elevation and may not be able to invest in snow making equipment. Earlier this year, Jespersen visited one of these "ghost" resorts — Conquistador, near West Cliffe, Colo. — and produced a video about the experience.

Studies confirm that the western United States and Northern Hemisphere has lost significant snow cover since the 1970s. The three winters following 2012-13 were particularly dry in California, hurting not only the ski industry but diminishing water supplies and adding the state's risk of wildfires.

Of all U.S. states, the ski industry in Colorado has the most to lose from warmer winters. According to a Protect Our Winters study released in February, Colorado employs more than 43,000 people in winter tourism, more than twice that of California.

Three years ago, Protect Our Winters moved its headquarters from California to Colorado to be closer to the industry's epicenter. Inside its Boulder offices is a mock phone booth the group often brings to ski resorts, so skiers can place calls to congressional offices before getting on the lifts.

Protect Our Winters claims to have 130,000 supporters, and it has also recruited more than 20 resorts nationwide to join its coalition, including Squaw Valley in California, Aspen in Colorado and Stevens Pass in Washington state.

Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, has been particularly outspoken. “Climate change is real," Wirth told The Sacramento Bee this year. "To deny it is a fool’s errand."

Not all ski businesses have been receptive. Vail Resorts — a publicly traded company that includes Vail in Colorado, Park City in Utah and Heavenly Valley in California — has issued warnings about climate change, but declined to add its muscle to Jespersen's group. Last year, Vail came under fire from environmentalists for contributing thousands of campaign dollars to western Republicans who are skeptics of climate change science, including Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado and U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock of California.

One challenge for Protect Our Winters is the political muscle of oil and coal industries, which oppose measures to reduce greenhouse gases and have a big footprint in states such as Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. To counter that muscle, POW has dispatched athletes and resort CEOs to make regular trips to Capitol Hill, which an emphasis on meeting with Republicans and emphasizing the economy impact of winter sports.

In March, Jespersen joined one of these DC lobbying trips. There he met with lawmakers, briefed reporters at the National Press Club and generally looked uncomfortable wearing a collared shirt and tie.

"It is largely a bipartisan thing," Jespersen said of the group's current approach. "We've found candidates on both sides of the aisle, Republican and Democrat across the county, who believe in climate change. They believe it is a threat. We try to get behind them and support those people."

Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth
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