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Drought. Haze. Closed rivers. Shorter Winters. What is the Future for Colorado's Outdoor Businesses in a Changing Climate?

DENVER, COLORADO - AUGUST 19: Dan Gambino, Retail Store Assistant Manager at the Denver Rab store, works at the outdoor recreation company’s store on August 19, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
RJ Sangosti/DP
DENVER, COLORADO - AUGUST 19: Dan Gambino, Retail Store Assistant Manager at the Denver Rab store, works at the outdoor recreation company’s store on August 19, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Stretches of Colorado rivers closed to fishing because of low water flows and warm temperatures. A decrease in the number of warmer, down-filled jackets sold because of shorter winters. Boats grounded at marinas because of low water levels.

The outdoor recreation industry is seeing the impacts of climate change in buying patterns and the challenges of delivering the kinds of experiences customers want. The industry, increasingly vocal on environmental issues, is using the megaphone supplied by its multi-billion-dollar contribution to the U.S. economy to help sound the alarms on climate change.

"It's the fires and certainly the air quality we've seen in the cities out there. It's the drought, the water levels for boating, rafting and kayaking," said Jessica Turner, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, which represents thousands of outdoor businesses.

"Lake Powell could be having a record year because of the interest in outdoor activity, but instead boats can't get in or out," Turner added.

The water levels in Lake Powell, which straddles Arizona and Utah, are at record lows. Boat ramps have closed and companies have cancelled bookings for houseboat rentals, USA Today reported. In Colorado, boat ramps at Vega State Park and John Martin Reservoir are closed because of low water levels.

The environmental challenges come as more people are visiting national parks and forests as well as state parks and other public lands. The boat and recreational vehicle industries are among those struggling to keep up with orders after the pandemic shut down concerts, theaters and other entertainment, sending people outdoors for escape.

A survey by the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association said 7.1 million more Americans participated in outdoor recreation in 2020 than in 2019. About 160 million people ages 6 and older, or 52.9%, participated in at least one outdoor activity, up from 50.7% in 2019 for the biggest one-year jump on record, the association said.

But the warm waters that have prompted mandatory and voluntary fishing closures on Colorado rivers have cooled anglers' interest. Ben McCormick's business, Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne, cancelled 16 of its fishing trips the first day Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed a voluntary fishing closure on part of the Colorado River.

The hot weather has led wildlife officials in Colorado and other states to shut parts of rivers to fishing because high water temperatures decrease oxygen levels, stressing or killing fish.

"This August we stopped running our half-day afternoon trips and we stopped booking additional floats just because we didn’t feel like there was a good enough product there to be doing it," McCormick said. "It definitely was a massive disruption of our business."

The upside is that Cutthroat Anglers has permits to lead trips on other rivers. The downside, McCormick said, is that the pressure increases on the open areas.

Fishing contributes $2.4 billion a year to the state's economy, according to the Colorado Wildlife Council.

Winter recreation is experiencing its own rough terrain. Pandemic-induced cabin fever helped the ski industry rack up 59 million skier visits in the 2020-21 season, the fifth-best season on record, the National Ski Areas Association reported.

But climate change is clouding the long-term outlook for winter recreation. A 2017 study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency said nearly all sites will see shorter seasons, with some downhill ski areas seeing their seasons shrink by more than 50% by 2050 and 80% in 2090.

A major, international scientific study released Aug. 9 by the United Nations said a failure to make deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions means the effects of global warming will escalate over the next 30 years. The report said the window for avoiding the worst-case scenarios is narrowing.

"When it doesn't snow or winters become shorter, as they already have, our industry suffers dramatically, and it's not just the ski resorts," said Chris Steinkamp, head of advocacy for Snowsport Industries America.

Manufacturers, sales representatives, retailers and small businesses in mountain communities such as Aspen, Steamboat and Telluride feel the effects, Steinkamp said.

Warming trends, cooling sales

Rab Equipment can chart the impacts of climate change through its down jacket sales. Jon Frederick is the general manager for the British company's U.S. operations, based in Louisville. He said the company got its start providing insulation, or down-filled sleeping bags and jackets.

The pandemic, with its global supply-chain disruptions, has caused shortages of products. "The bigger conversation is a little bit clouded by what’s happening right now," Frederick said, "because right now everything is selling. Anything that anybody can stock is selling."

However, a longer-term trend is the decrease over the last three to five years of warmer down jackets in the U.S. Frederick attributes the change to shorter, less cold winters.

At the same time, sales of lighter jackets and three-season type clothing, such as shorts for running and biking, are growing. So far, Rab hasn't seen the same decline in sales of warmer clothing in other countries. Frederick said those other countries are generally at higher latitudes than the U.S.

"But it's very predictable and, I think, realistic that we're going to start seeing those effects in northern latitudes as well," Frederick said.

The Rockies' high elevations and snow-making capabilities make it possible to maintain relatively good conditions at resorts in the face of climate change, Matt Gold, CEO of Colorado-based Christy Sports, said in an email.

Additionally, resort communities are turning into year-round destinations, which Gold said is a strategic shift that recognizes the long-term impact of climate change. Christy Sports has seen the shift as an opportunity to be a four-season outdoor retailer, he added, doing things like expanding its bicycle business.

Gold said Christy Sports is also partnering with other industry leaders concerned about climate change through Snowsports Industries of America's ClimateUnited initiative. SIA recently launched the initiative to focus the industry on goals for reducing carbon emissions and provide tools to address climate change, such as advocating for policy changes.

Intrinsic link

"Our industry is intrinsically connected to the natural world," Steinkamp said. "Everybody wants to do something because it's a business imperative."

There's an emotional imperative, too, Steinkamp added. "We're in this business because we grew up in the outdoors and we love what we do and it's why we do what we do."

Rab Equipment's goal is to cut its carbon emissions as close to zero as possible by 2030 and reduce the balance through technology or carbon-removal projects. Frederick said the company has switched to wind to power its buildings and plug-in electric vehicles. As the technology has improved, Rab has used more recycled down and fabrics in its products.

"I can think of a dozen brands off the top of my head that all have really strong initiatives that are all a little bit different than each other. Together, it creates this really powerful force," Frederick said.

McCormick, the owner of Cutthroat Anglers, and other Trout Unlimited members are working with Angry James Brewery in Silverthorne on a new beer to raise money for the Blue River Watershed Group. The group is developing a management plan for the watershed and the goal is to provide support for the scientific work necessary to make good decisions.

"It’s going to take everything we’ve got from a conservation perspective to maintain our natural resources out here," McCormick said. "It's definitely what keeps me up at night. Sustained drought, population growth. What does it look like out here in 10 years if nothing changes?"

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This story was written in partnership with the Denver Post, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.

Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.

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