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Salt Lake City leaders talk climate change and outdoor recreation economy

Published: Friday, Aug. 8 2014 6:06 p.m. MDT

A skier takes a run at Snowbird Ski Resort Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker met with local business and outdoor industry leaders to discuss the impact of climate change on local recreation activities and businesses that support it.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — While the issue of climate change is controversial to some, local elected officials say its impact is being felt significantly along the Wasatch Front.

As thousands descend upon Salt Lake City for this year’s Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker met with local business and outdoor recreation industry leaders to discuss the impact of climate change on local recreation activities and businesses that support it.

Speaking in downtown Salt Lake, Becker said climate change affects how the city is able to provide a “high-quality” water supply to residents, as well as how the municipality deals with severe weather activity.

“When we have to change our water supply system, it costs a lot of money,” Becker said. “When we have to respond to the increasing intensity of storms, it costs a lot of money.”

In addition to harming air quality and public health, carbon-fueled climate change is also having a major impact on natural landscapes in Salt Lake City and throughout the U.S., the mayor said. Those landscapes provide countless outdoor recreation opportunities and support thousands of outdoor recreation equipment manufacturers, retailers and outdoor businesses, including Utah ski areas and the jobs that go with them, he said.

“It’s a challenge for us going forward, and we’re trying to think both big picture and long term about how we can make decisions to protect this great asset we have both economically and non-economically for our quality of life,” Becker said.

The mayor said Salt Lake City employees are working virtually every day on developing strategies for reducing the municipality’s carbon emissions and providing an adequate water supply.

“If we can change our energy use in our buildings, we’re reducing our carbon footprint and our air quality impacts,” Becker said. “With shrinking snowpack, we need to be looking at how we can adjust our water supply so that we make sure we have adequate, high-quality water going forward.”

As for outdoor recreation, climate change is creating significant risk for the $730 billion industry, and business leaders are looking to elected officials to implement climate change solutions that protect public lands, water and the ecosystem services they provide — including recreation opportunities, he added.

Meanwhile, the general manager of Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort said the outdoor industry is already learning to adjust to the challenges presented by climate change.

“Last winter, a lot of resorts were negatively impacted with record drought years,” Bob Bonnar said. “A lot of those impacts and extreme weather conditions, whether it’s too much snow back East or the drought conditions in the West, have tremendous economic impacts associated with the extreme conditions from coast to coast.”

Bonnar said many resorts and local communities have been hit hard financially due to the effects of climate change. To mitigate those impacts, a number of resorts and businesses are taking steps to lower expenses and reduce their environmental impacts as well, he said.

“At our resort, for example, when we were all switching out our light bulbs, it saved us about $180,000 a year in power costs,” Bonnar explained.

Other resorts are taking similar steps to save money and become more environmentally friendly, he added.

Looking ahead, Bonnar said many resorts likely will continue increasing efficiencies and also target warm-weather outdoor enthusiasts as a way to increase revenue.

“If we’re going to be looking at shorter winters and longer summers, what other types of activities — like mountain biking — can we offer for our guests so that we have a more year-round diversified product?” Bonnar queried rhetorically. “All ski resorts over time are going to realize that will be an important part of their business plan.”

E-mail: jlee@deseretnews.com

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