- Dustin Glatz, with assets from Shutterstock.com
From the mountains, mesas and canyons of the Western Slope to the sprawling prairies of the Eastern Plains, Colorado offers boundless opportunities for residents and visitors to enjoy the outdoors.
But climate change has made many of the state’s natural attractions increasingly vulnerable, and the businesses, agencies and nonprofit organizations that rely upon and support them will need to adjust.
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Colorado’s average temperature has risen more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 30 years and is projected to rise an additional 2.5 to 5 degrees by 2050, according to the Colorado Climate Plan — a report on climate change impacts produced and updated by state and federal agencies.
Those changes are expected have a significant impact on the state’s tourism — which brought in a record $22.3 billion in consumer spending in 2018 — as well as in the Pikes Peak region, which includes El Paso, Park and Teller counties.
- Photos courtesy PPORA
- Temperature and precipitation fluctuations due to climate change will likely impact several of Colorado’s outdoor recreation industries, particularly whitewater rafting, ice climbing and angling, which rely heavily on favorable snow and water conditions.
Doug Price, the CEO and president of the Colorado Springs tourism organization VisitCOS, says the region saw 23 million visitors in 2018, 24 percent of whom identified outdoor recreation and opportunities to tour scenic beauty as the primary reasons for their trip.
So a warming climate not only threatens Colorado’s wildlife species and delicate ecosystems, but also one of its largest economic drivers.
“The quality of our outdoor experiences is starting to suffer,” says Becky Leinweber, CEO of the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance (PPORA).
“As summers get longer and hotter, winters and snow packs are more unpredictable, river flows are challenged and we’re having more devastating natural disasters that are becoming more frequent.”
Leinweber, who is also co-owner of Colorado Springs-based fly fishing retailer Angler’s Covey, says that poses a challenge for virtually all of the state’s outdoor recreation opportunities, from fishing, hiking and camping, to popular snow sports like skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling.
“We’re businesses and we need reliability just like any other business does,” Leinweber says. “But for us, our infrastructure is public land, and the weather matters for everything that we do.”
- Photos courtesy PPORA
With a warming climate impacting rain and snowfall — Colorado is likely to see increases in mid-winter precipitation, but decreases in snowpack through 2050 — the activities that rely on snow likely will see some of the most significant effects.
In recent years across the western U.S., less winter precipitation has fallen in the form of snow and more as rain, according to a 2018 report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO)
Its report notes that snowpacks are declining and snowmelt is occurring earlier., both of which are expected to become more pronounced over time.
“Our snow sports are particularly concerned about it,” Leinweber says.
“You look at this year and we’re getting major snowpack, but again, it’s unreliable. So we’ll have some very low-snow winters. Skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing — they’re all snow-dependent, and when you think about it, whitewater rafting is a snow-dependent industry, too. So there’s definitely an effect that ripples throughout a number of outdoor recreation opportunities.”
With less snow, the state’s ski resorts — which draw about 13 million visits per year — are already having to adjust.
“Some of the resorts are looking at doing more things off-season,” Leinweber says. “They’re holding festivals in their areas, they’re doing more hiking and biking, and they’re having to come up with new models and kind of pivot a little bit to make sure they’re sustainable.”
Fortunately for Colorado, which has the country’s highest mean elevation, the majority of its resorts are found in the mountains.
As a result, its skiable terrain, the Colorado Climate Report says, should be maintainable through 2050.
Other resorts across the country might not fare so well. Their visitation losses could be Colorado’s gain, at least in the short-term.
But as temperatures continue to rise past mid-century, experts say, further negative effects are likely.
While snow-dependent sports might see some of the most obvious impacts, many summer outdoor recreation activities also depend on reliable water levels and conditions.
Projected increases in temperature, combined with lower snowpack and the faster thaw rate of dust-darkened snow, will affect Colorado’s peak runoff, the Colorado Climate Report says, likely shifting it by one to four weeks.
- Photos courtesy PPORA
That could pose a significant problem for the state’s whitewater rafting industry.
If peak runoff — historically in June or July — were to shift a few weeks or a month, the prime rafting season would fall during the school year, before many take summer vacations or plan weekend trips.
And if flows are low, veteran rafters might perceive the experience as too mild and choose to go elsewhere.
It also could damage the state’s fishing industry.
The Colorado Climate Report says changes in streamflow volume have a big impact on fish populations, especially cold-water species like trout.
Fishing hotspots with “Gold Medal” status — designated by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to signify they produce at least 60 pounds of trout per acre, and at least 12 trout per acre that are 14 inches or longer — might see that status revoked, deterring some anglers from fishing there.
Most climate models cited in the Colorado Climate report suggest summer precipitation will decrease, resulting in more heat waves, drought and increased risk of wildfire.
As a result, organizations like the Rocky Mountain Field Institute (RMFI) — a Springs-based 501(c)3 nonprofit environmental organization that aided in restoration efforts following the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires in 2012 and 2013 — are incorporating climate change strategies into their plans.
“Knowing that climate change is here and presumably will continue to be here and present additional challenges, we as an organization need to be prepared and positioned to address potential impacts from what is a foreseeable warming climate,” said RMFI Executive Director Jennifer Peterson. “A warming impact leads to other potential changes in the ecosystem, which then lead to other challenges. They’re all sort of interconnected and related.”
For RMFI, preparing for climate change and, in particular, wildfires, has largely meant shifting its focus from restoration to prevention and stabilization.
“It’s being prepared with the skillset on staff when that next wildfire comes,” Peterson said. “There’s a bigger focus on proactive forest health and mitigation work that involves a lot of handwork — thinning of certain tree species, clearing out a lot of excess fuel and different things to really make the canopy less dense. We’ve been doing a lot of things in our national forests to take a proactive approach to landscape management, so if and when that next fire comes, because of the work that we and our partners have done, the impacts … potentially won’t be as catastrophic as Waldo Canyon was.”
While outdoor recreation businesses are sure to feel some effects of climate change in the future, adaptability will work in their favor.
“This is a very resilient industry,” Leinweber says. “People are not going to stop getting outdoors … but it might change what they do. Instead of doing things they’ve always planned on doing at a certain time of year, well maybe now they’ll be doing something different. Maybe instead of snowshoeing … people go hiking. There’s always something you can do to get the benefits. The exercise, the mental health benefits, the connection to nature, the connection to one another, all those things will always be available, even as climate change impacts us. The industry will pivot and be resilient and innovate. We’re going to be around.”