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Colorado: Ski industry may boom in the coming decades

Demand for skiing is expected to surge in the next few decades.

New research projects surge in demand for both developed and undeveloped skiing as population grows in the West

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Skiing could see another boom in the next few decades, perhaps equalling the growth spurt of the 1960s and 1970s, as  projected demand grows by up to 50 percent by 2060, according to new data released this week by U.S. Forest Service and University of Georgia researchers at the National Association of Resource Recreation Planners conference in Breckenridge.

Demand for both developed and undeveloped skiing (covered resort-based lift-served skiing, crosscounty and backcountry) is forecast to grow faster than the demand for any other type of recreation, Forest Service researcher Ken Cordell said, explaining that the increase may be tied to an overall shift in demographics, as the population is projected to grow fastest in the Intermountain West and the Pacific Northwest.

The surge in demand for skiing could have huge implications for Forest Service land managers when they update forest plans. Meeting the new demand could require allocating new parcels of national forest system lands for ski area expansions, or even the development of new areas near communities where such plans are already controversial.

Demand for developed skiing is projected to grow by 20 to 50 percent, and the demand for undeveloped skiing could grow by 9 to 31 percent. The models aren’t foolproof, Cordell said, but the ongoing research has been accurate in previous rounds.

The data on ski demand was presented during the recent National Association Recreation Resource planners in Breckenridge by Forest Service researcher Ken Cordell and University of Georgia professor Gary Green as they outlined overall recreation trends and projections for recreation on public lands.The figures are based on data from extensive visitor surveys compiled in the 2010 Renewable Resources Planning Act National Assessment.

To begin, the two researchers outlined some of the challenges associated with getting an accurate picture of visitation, including the fact that there’s no standardized way mechanism for reporting visitation.

“Everybody counts differently,” said Green, explaining that public land managers are often making educated guesses about what they’re seeing.

Green and Cordell weren’t shy about saying that there is a definite political component to the way agencies report visitors, given that budgets are often based on those numbers. Reporting declines can lead to budget cuts.

But their data suggests that visitation to state parks in the Rocky Mountain region has increased dramatically in the last couple of decades, from 49 million visits in 1992 to 64.3 million in 2009. In other parts of the country, visits to state parks have declined.

The projected increase in demand for skiing and the surge in Rocky Mountain region state park visits could be tied to a larger demographic trend, they said, explaining that population in the intermountain West is increasing at a faster rate than other regions of the country.

Their data also shows that the overall number of recreation days nationwide has increase 32 percent in the last 10 years, with a steady growth in nature-based recreational activities, including wildlife watching and sharp declines in hunting and fishing

Fishing participation declined from 35 million to 30 million between 1996 and 2006, while hunting participation dropped from 14 million to 12.5 million in that same span.

State resource managers are concerned about those trends because licenses are a huge source of revenue, Cordell said. The decline is expected to level off after 2060.

“In general, non-consumptive use is up, consumptive use is down,” Cordell added.

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6 Responses

  1. As for the study, I don’t buy it. It looks at the number of people moving west and not the economic and social demographics of the people moving. They also use rising visitation to state and federal park lands to extrapolate that this same rise will occur in the ski industry even though parks draw a MUCH wider (essentially everyone) population base. Their assumption is that since more people are visiting parks, more people will want to ski, which is like saying: if more people buy shoes in the mall, more people will also buy stuff at the magic shop in the mall. Both are in the mall and people go there to shop, but not everyone wants to buy magic tricks… I’d bet that the drivers behind increasing park visitation are the same that are behind the increase in skier visits: the Baby-Boomer generation.

    Unless there is some huge sudden interest in learning to ski -among the shrinking middle class- there won’t be a “50% increase” in skiers. The more likely trend is that total skier numbers will stay the same and skier visits will continue to rise for the next few years before leveling of and then declining. One further observation: currently, there are more ski areas in the East and Midwest -where these people would be moving from- then there are in the West. Why would they suddenly decide to ski when they move West, but not ski where they live now?

    • Actually, Hunter, I think the study is based on fairly in-depth surveys with recreational visitors, not on extrapolating demographics.

      • Bob, you wouldn’t have a link to the study would you? I’d really like to know where this data comes from as it indicates a huge reversal of the 20+ year trend of stagnation and shrinking skier numbers in the ski industry. While I think it is WILDLY optimistic, if true it would have huge impacts on ski communities and mountain environments. In effect, this study means that there could be as many as 17,4 million skiers in the US, which is up from the 11.6 million reported skiers in 2006 (the last year for which I have data), and this added demand for skiing opportunities would allow the USFS to approve most expansions and perhaps even permit applications for new ski areas…

  2. I’d love to read more about this as well. Seems a little far fetched given how stagnant the ski industry is and how bad the economy still is along with a weakening middle class. If there is going to be any growth in winter recreation, I bet it will be signficant outside ski resorts where you don’t have to buy a $100 lift ticket.

  3. Slightly off topic, but what are you Coloradans feelings on the Battle Mountain project?

    http://www.5280.com/magazine/2011/06/last-resort?page=0,0

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