New Mexico’s ski resorts tackle climate change with sustainability measures

By Steve Larese

New Mexico’s ski areas are combatting shrinking winter ski seasons with new sustainability measures. Will they be successful?

In the past decade, New Mexico’s winters have seen less snow and warmer temperatures — two ingredients that foreshadow poor ski seasons. In the same time nationally, the ski season has decreased by an average of 34 days. Amid these conditions, calls for climate action have been heating up. So when Taos Ski Valley became the first North American ski area to be certified CarbonNeutral by energy consultants Climate Impact Partners, the ski industry, skiers, and businesses in general lauded the ski resort for its achievement. The ski area earned this certification, however, thanks to billionaire financier and conservationist Louis Bacon, whose investments allowed TSV to begin operating its own airline and to spend hundreds of millions in upgrades. That’s a high bar for other ski areas, many of which are struggling with pandemic setbacks, shorter seasons brought about by climate change, and costly measures to keep themselves operating amid drier winters.

The ski industry has traditionally considered itself an eco-friendly business, full of outdoors lovers who promote its responsible enjoyment. That’s particularly true in New Mexico, where the sport has century-deep roots and where several ski areas are still family-owned and -operated. New Mexico’s ski industry is a $560 million revenue generator for the Land of Enchantment, says Ski New Mexico executive director George Brooks. “Skiing is a part of New Mexico’s heritage,” he says. “We love our mountains and being in them.”

Can ski areas become climate conscious, survive economically, and preserve the mountain sports that legions of ski and snowboard fans love? Many say they can.

With its high elevation and positioning to catch southern storms, New Mexico has long depended on snowy winters to keep skiers and snowboarders happy. While snowfall is never a guarantee anywhere and predicting the weather is too often a game of fools, New Mexico’s ski seasons — and the country’s — are getting warmer and less snowy.

“Broadly, the trend throughout the continental United States has been warmer temperatures over the past two decades,” says Todd Shoemake, a meteorologist with the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service.

“We’ve also seen much drier conditions. That’s the prediction for the next decade in New Mexico as well, and the reality of climate change.”

An Environmental Protection Agency report released in April 2020 states that April snowpack in the western United States declined an average of 20 percent between 1955 and 2020. Smaller snowpacks compound the warming trend. Since 1900, U.S. winters have become about five degrees Fahrenheit warmer. With warmer temperatures, more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, hastening the loss of snowpacks. Five degrees can mean the difference between powder and slush for ski areas at lower elevations.

New Mexico has certainly experienced warm winters and droughts in the past, Shoemake says, but the difference now is that data are showing that these conditions are here to stay.

“There are always variables in play and we’ve seen droughts before, but this is a trend we’ve marked for a while now, and it’s come on relatively fast compared to other warming events,” Shoemake says. “Skiing is impacted, and so are our rivers, agriculture, and everyone who depends on water. The climate is changing everywhere, and we’re feeling that in the Southwest.”

These were the conditions and predictions when longtime Taos lover Louis Bacon bought Taos Ski Valley from the Blake family in 2014. Expert skier and Army veteran Ernie Blake broke ground for Taos Ski Valley with his wife, Rhoda, in 1955, and the family stewarded the ski area for decades. After his purchase, Bacon invested $300 million into building renovations and upgrades at a ski area known for its challenging terrain and its reputation as an old-school, true skier’s mountain.

Many locals feared the outsider would turn their beloved mountain into a theme park, but Bacon won them over when he shepherded Taos through the rigorous process of becoming a certified B Corporation in 2017; it was the first ski resort in North America to earn that designation. Certified B Corporations “meet high standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose,” according to the B Corporation website. “B Corps are accelerating a global culture shift to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy.”

The ski resort saw earning B Corp status as aligning with its values, which prioritize both preserving the mountain and supporting people. Taos Skill Valley CEO David Norden says, “There was this idea that if you wanted to bring environmental sensitivity into your business, that would be a cost: ‘Yeah, that’s a great thing to do for the planet but not a great thing to do for my business.’ But we don’t believe that to be true. Through environmental work, your operation is more efficient. Power costs, fuel costs come down. Your loyalty from your customer base and employees increases because your values align.”

TSV incorporated environmental measures into its 2017 renovations. It installed a geothermal system to heat and cool the tony Blake hotel, which earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The ski area itself operates on daytime solar energy from Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. TSV also works with the Nature Conservancy’s Rio Grande Water Fund and the U.S. Forest Service to mitigate damage from the 2011 Las Conchas Fire and subsequent floods that devastated Northern New Mexico and impacted the watershed.

The ski area faced a transportation dilemma: to shore up its business, it needed to get people to the resort reliably. But the air travel that would facilitate guest arrivals was the antithesis of sustainability efforts. “We knew Taos was hard to get to for many people, so we decided to enter the airline business with Taos Air,” Norden says. “But how does a B Corp launch an airline that has a very heavy carbon footprint? We worked with Native Energy in Vermont to calculate offsets to make Taos Air carbon neutral, and then we expanded that to all of TSV. That’s what made us realize we could be net zero for carbon emissions in all areas, not just the airline.”

TSV continued investing in green measures and declared that it would work toward earning CarbonNeutral certification by 2030. By investing in 150 energy-efficiency snowmaking guns, purchasing 10 electric snowmobiles and an electric snowcat (another North America first), retrofitting older buildings for better energy usage, and installing 30 electric car charging stations and other measures, TSV beat its 2030 goal by eight years.

“Considering the extent to which climate change makes ski areas dependent on these watersheds for snowmaking capacity, such support for restoration projects needs to industry.” —JONATHAN HAYDEN become the new normal in the ski

“This is not the victory lap,” Norden says. “This is a great milestone, but more important than becoming certified CarbonNeutral, it’s the first step to understanding what all of our emissions are and how we can continue to reduce our overall carbon footprint. This is only the first of many steps for us.”

Beyond confronting its carbon emissions, in August 2022 TSV gave employees a 7.5 percent pay raise. TSV also pays employees for volunteer work.

“Social responsibility is also part of this movement, making sure that your staff is making a living wage and pay equity,” Norden says. “When you talk about sustainability, you have to expand it from not just environmental causes but also social responsibility. We’re finding that that’s creating a great workplace for all. Benefiting your staff benefits your community.”

Still, Norden acknowledges that these measures don’t remove the existential threat of climate change for New Mexico’s ski industry, and he understands that not every ski area has the resources to undertake the upfront costs of going green.

“Nationwide, the industry as a whole is being impacted by climate change,” Norden says. “Many resorts are talking about a shortened season, where maybe they had 140 operating days and now [have dropped] to 130, 120 days. I think we’re starting to see a reduction in the industry as a whole in operating days. Snow is coming a little later, and going a little earlier in the springtime. We haven’t been impacted that much yet because of our elevation, but we’d be foolish to think we couldn’t be, even with all we’ve done.”

Taos Ski Valley isn’t the only ski area in New Mexico impacted by climate change. Sandia Peak Ski Area, atop the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque, has felt effects deeply, and it hasn’t fared well. Representatives announced that Sandia Peak won’t open for the 2022–2023 ski season because forecasts are predicting another truncated winter.

“Winters have become short to the point of absurd the past two years,” says Sandia Peak general manager Ben Abruzzo. “They didn’t even start until the middle of January.”

Abruzzo’s paternal grandfather, adventurer Ben L. Abruzzo, purchased the small ski area with Robert Nordaus in 1958. The Abruzzo family still owns the ski area, along with Ski Santa Fe, which is scheduled to open as usual.

“In Santa Fe, we have the elevation and temperatures, and we’ve invested heavily in snowmaking,” says Abruzzo, adding that Sandia Peak Ski Area’s base sits at 8,678 feet as opposed to Santa Fe’s 10,350-foot base. “We’re lower at Sandia, and just can’t fight the warmer temps even with snowmaking.”

Angel Fire Resort is also looking wearily at the winter forecast. “Our biggest concern is a triple-dip La Niña,” says Greg Ralph, Angel Fire Resort’s director of marketing, referring to the third year of predicted La Niña conditions, an uncommon occurrence that results in dry winters. “This will likely mean more snowmaking, especially early in the season. Fortunately, we’ve had a lot of rain this summer, so our water supply is in good shape.”

Like Taos, Angel Fire Resort is upgrading snowmaking equipment, vehicles, and buildings to be more energy efficient and is adding electric vehicle charging stations for customers, Ralph says.

With warmer temperatures, more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, hastening the loss of snowpacks. Five degrees can mean the difference between powder and slush for ski areas at lower elevations.

Other ski areas have also invested heavily in snowmaking equipment to shore up the ski season. Ski New Mexico’s Brooks says this is why the state usually enjoys strong seasons. However, with snow guns using up to 150 gallons of water a minute, snowmaking has a critical environmental impact.

The resorts also affect the state’s water quality and ecosystems downstream. Mountains feed water into New Mexico’s rivers, which are increasingly stressed due to heat, usage, and long periods of drought punctuated by intense storms. Any new run cut or parking lot paved at a ski area can have ripple effects. However, “Ski Santa Fe, Sandia Peak Ski Area, and Taos Ski Valley are all members of the Rio Grande Water Fund, which invests in forest and watershed restoration projects,” says Jonathan Hayden, a senior policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates. “Considering the extent to which climate change makes ski areas dependent on these watersheds for snowmaking capacity, such support for restoration projects needs to become the new normal in the ski industry.”

Overall, environmentalists say the state’s ski areas have been good partners. “There are bad actors and good actors in the ski industry, but in New Mexico, I’ve been impressed with how much effort is being put into environmental responsibility and balancing making a profit with what’s good for the mountains,” says Jonathan Hayden, lands and rivers senior policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates in Santa Fe. “New Mexico’s ski areas are family-owned or smaller companies, not owned by huge corporations, which makes them easier to work with. It’s been my experience that decision makers at the ski areas here really do care about their footprint and how it impacts these watersheds year-round. They work well with the Forest Service.”

On the business side, New Mexico ski areas are adapting to shorter winter seasons by launching summer activities to fund improvements and retain employees year-round.

“No question people are coming for cooler temperatures in the summer,” says TSV’s Norden. “The overall trend for us for summer has been great. Six or seven years ago we were a ski area that at the end of winter pretty much shut down. But now we run all the way through. It’s great for our staff. We’re busy in the summer with our mountain biking, via ferrata events, and weddings. Even some people in Taos will come up to Taos Ski Valley to get away from the heat.”

Despite not opening this winter, Abruzzo says, Sandia Peak is still doing well with its year-round Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway and TEN 3 Restaurant.

Angel Fire Resort has become nationally known for its summer mountain biking system, and Pajarito Ski Area is being discovered for its summer biking as well. Sipapu stays busy in the summer with its championship disc golf course, and Red River Ski & Summer Area has added a zip line, summer mountain tubing, mini golf, and other warm-weather activities in its cool mountains.

For now, all eyes are on the winter. As skiers and ski resorts watch the forecast, they feel optimistic for this season and beyond. “Ski areas have weathered the pandemic, and before that a turndown in business, so it’s time to get back to what we do, and that’s offering great skiing,” Brooks says. “I can’t think of an industry here more dedicated to reducing its impact on the environment. We know what our mountains do for us, and I think all of New Mexico’s ski areas know that it’s our responsibility to do what we can to take care of them as we enjoy them.”






Santa Fe New Mexican