January Silent Alarm
The Snow Economy Moves North
By Mike McFadzen
Experiencing lake effect snow events can be a spiritual experience. I’ve had the opportunity to ski, bike and shoe into a few of these storms. During a ski outing at Pictures Rocks National Lakeshore I was fortunate to watch a huge snow squall develop. It was a cold and sunny January day when the winds shifted from the north. Within minutes, large dark clouds developed and moved quickly towards shore. My buddies and I were enveloped in a mass of snow with large snowflakes filling the air and our ski tracks. We were soon covered in snow, hooting and hollering while skiing the cliffs above Lake Superior. It was a fun, but hard slog back to our car with a snow totals of 5″ in 90 minutes. The snow squalls continued throughout our 3 day ski and snowshoe jaunt. Absolutely lovely.
The good news is that the lake effect snow will continue in a changing climate. The bad news is that most of the Midwest will see decreasing snow.
SNOW ENTHUSIASTS SPEND MONEY
As the banana belt continues to slide further north, many of us look to weekend escapes by driving to the Midwest snowbelt. These escapes have become more common due to warming climate and less snowfall. There was a time when good November snows were common, but that doesn’t happen much anymore. This means northwoods ski, snow bike and snowshoe tourism is growing and having an outsize economic impact. Snow followers are willing to travel and spend money according to a study titled The Economic Impacts of Active Silent Sports Enthusiasts. The study estimated that 56,500 individual trips were made to the Wisconsin counties of Ashland, Bayfield and Sawyer. Each trip generated 2.4 nights of lodging in which $468 was spent. Roughly $14.7 million in private sector stimulus was infused directly into this area by nonresident snow tourists. Many of these participants can afford to travel and are rather affluent; 88% had a bachelor’s degree or higher and 70% identified their occupation as professional and managerial trades. Extrapolating this data on a state-wide basis indicates significant economic impact from these snow seeking tourists.
An interesting aside is that silent sportsters get a bad rap as cheapskates. You know; granola bar eating, holed up the hotel room, warming up soup, type characters. Skiers, bikers and snowshoers are indistinguishable to hospitality vendors compared to the conspicuousness of snowmobilers. When I’m spending my hard earned cash, I make sure the hotels, brew pubs and restaurants I visit know I’m cross-country skiing. We should all do the same.
WINTER RECREATION IS HUGE
A 2017 nationwide survey published by Snowsports Industries of America estimates there are approx. 5M cross country skiers, 11.8M downhillers, 8M boarders, 3.7M snowshoers and 425,000 fat bikers. According to The Economic Impact of Tourism in Wisconsin, visitor spending rose 4.9% in 2018 to $13.3 billion with a greater share coming from recreational activities including snow sports. Approximately 14% of Wisconsin residents’ downhill ski /snowboard, 13% cross-country ski and 13% snowshoe. Cold weather tourism generates $3.6B in Michigan alone. Snowbelt vendors including restaurants, hotels and ski & snow bike trails are seeing increased activity the last several years.
This data is further reinforced on a national level. Protect our winters (POW), a Colorado based advocacy organization estimates that 23 million people participated in winter sporting activities, adding an estimated $12.2 billion to the U.S. economy. Colorado led the nation with almost 12 million skier visits per year. POW estimates Colorado loses $154M annually in low snow years with 1,900 fewer jobs statewide. A bad year might even affect Colorado pot purchases!
SHIFTING SPORTS AND SNOW BIKING
Is this climate change thing a temporary phenomenon? Recent snow models project more declines in Midwest snowfall, indicative of a delayed start to the winter sports scene. This means even more travel or shifting to different sports. Snow biking is garnering more users as people shift from skiing and snow shoeing. Snow or fat bikes are typically equipped with 4-5” wide tires and run low tire pressure so they float more than a regular mountain bike which will sink in soft conditions. Fat biking extends the riding season and help transition to when snow finally arrives in the banana belt. Fat biking is one of the fastest growing recreational activities.
One beneficiary of snow tourism is the city Marquette. Susan Estler, Executive Director at Travel Marquette, was quite excited about their snowy forecast when I recently talked to her. “2019 was excellent; we had snow consistently through the season. Every couple days we got a few inches of lake effect. There was so much snow at times that tail groomers had a tough time keeping up with it.
Hotel occupancy was up compared to 2018 data”, according to Estler.
Besides excellent cross-country skiing, Marquette has become a snow bike destination and was recently featured in Outside magazine. Snow bikes sales are hot with some shops having a hard time keeping some models in stock. I marveled at their trail system during a recent trip to Marquette and found that many subdivisions have trail connectors. “We are grooming 38 miles of trails that connect directly to Marquette”, according to Lori Hauswirth, Executive Director at Noquemanon Trails Network. “Right now 40% Marquette residents are within 1 mile of part of the trail system”. We are pretty spoiled”, Hauswirth teased.
WHAT’S THE FUTURE?
Much of Midwest got an unexpected Halloween snowfall this year but that’s not likely to be the norm. As previously reported in this magazine, the Midwest is particularly vulnerable to climate change with expected declines in snow as well as extreme heat in summer. It will likely transform where and how people recreate and present challenges to health and quality of live. Besides meager winters, climate change is manifested by other phenomenon including a southward tick migration causing more tick borne diseases and the spread of invasive species. You can’t blame everything on climate change but the scientific evidence is overwhelming.
Unless you’re lucky enough to live in the snowbelt, more driving may be in your future.