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Southwest Idaho Ski Areas Navigate Changing Climate, Hard Economics

Inside Brundage, Bogus and Tamarack's efforts to prepare for the upcoming ski season


Every year, Craig Brewer plugs in the string of Christmas lights that hang on his small house next to the Simplot Lodge at Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area. As the tradition goes, plug in the lights and it will snow.

Trouble is, they keep going out.

"The Christmas lights aren't working so well anymore," said Brewer, longtime slope manager for Bogus Basin.

After three years of lower-than-average snowfall at Bogus, the mountain's struggles are clear. Still, Brewer is going to give the lights another try this season.

Two other Southwest Idaho ski resorts are also gearing up for the 2014-2015 ski season—each in different situations that highlight the challenges facing ski areas around the country.

While Bogus employees have wrung their hands in anticipation of snow, Tamarack Resort, in Donnelly, has clung to survival through a different sort of drought. After six years in foreclosure, the resort has reopened under new management, hoping to leave a troubled past behind. Brundage Mountain Resort outside of McCall, however, has continued to see snowfall, increased visitation and expansion.

Each faces a string of similar hurdles: climate change has reduced snowfall at low-elevation ski resorts nationwide, and the recession hasn't been kind to many mom-and-pop ski areas. The twin threats of warmer winters and hard economics have left resorts striving to diversify operations to include summer activities like zip lines and investing in technology to support an industry that can't make snow fast enough.

According to the Kottke National End of Season Survey of 2013-2014, released by the National Ski Areas Association, visits to ski resorts across the country declined 0.7 percent last season—a 19.6 percent drop in the Northwest, specifically. Out of 478 ski resorts in the country, eight closed down.

"Oh yeah, there's a huge concern," said David Byrd, director of risk management for Colorado-based NSAA. "A huge concern about climate change."

Byrd said a congressman came to speak at the organization's national convention last year about the "conservative case for climate action." It's not easy, he said, to convince an industry with a large number of conservative business owners to adopt efficiency and sustainability practices.

"It's a real challenge for us," Byrd said.

Facing less-than-promising odds of snowfall and overhauled ownership, Southwest Idaho ski resorts have yet another season before them—and, like always, it could go either way.