Helping Ski Resort Communities
Face the Reality of Climate Change

madson tahoe
Courtesy of Diana Madson
Growing up in California, Diana Madson spent much of her youth exploring the great mountains of the Sierra Nevada.  At 19 she fell in love with skiing.  Like many skiers, an obsession with finding the best snow days — and getting on the slopes as often as possible — made her particularly attuned to the weather.
But she also developed an acute sensitivity to the changes occurring on those mountains from year to year. She says those changes have become increasingly noticeable in recent years, as reduced snowpack and shortened seasons have taken an environmental — and economic — toll on those resorts and communities.
As a warming climate threatens to make matters even worse, Madson, who will graduate from F&ES next month, wants to help those communities adapt. In an independent study, she has modeled a coalition to help these tourism-based communities pool their resources, knowledge, and political heft in order to make them more resilient.
The project — called The Mountain Pact — would also promote public awareness and new policies that protect these communities whose financial survival depends on winter sports and recreation.
I don’t think it necessarily occurs to them that they can make a difference. Though they are certainly feeling the impacts.
— Diana Madson
“In many of these resort communities, climate change still feels like an abstract issue,” Madson says. “They see the discussion over climate change happening at the UN climate talks. But they wonder how a small town of 21,000 people, like South Lake Tahoe, can tackle climate change.
“I don’t think it necessarily occurs to them that they can make a difference,” she says. “Though they are certainly feeling the impacts.”
Over the last two years, she has created a framework by which these diverse communities can influence state and federal policy, work together to access federal, state and private funding for climate adaptation, and develop strategies for economic and environmental resiliency.
The concept has attracted support from several resort communities, and Madson is now launching this nonprofit initiative.

Over the last decade, the winter tourism industry has lost an estimated $1 billion and as many as 27,000 jobs as a result of diminished snowfall patterns, according to a 2012 study by the nonprofit groups Protect Our Winters (POW) and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The implications of these trends are not lost on western resort communities, Madson says. During visits to several ski towns last year, she found that resort operators and regional leaders in most resort towns are very much aware of the problem.
But she also found that most aren’t really doing much about it. And even if they wanted to, there’s not much information on what they could do.
“What information exists on climate change adaptation is largely focused on coastal communities, where they are experiencing sea-level rise and hurricanes and other issues,” she said. “But, of course, there is also significant economic loss happening in these mountain communities.”
In her work with Tahoe, Vail, Jackson Hole, and Park City, she discovered an overwhelming interest in building adaptation into the fabric of community planning — and how implementation on this scale might eventually be funded.
This is one of the ways that this school can be an incubator.
— Brad Gentry
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), a bi-state agency that oversees environmental protection and development of the region, liked Madson’s coalition idea so much that they agreed to partner with her on the venture. In fact, they strongly encouraged a component that assists communities in pursuing federal and state funding.
Madson who is now seeking fiscal sponsorship and is in talks with nonprofit organizations about potential partnerships, hopes to get the project off the ground as soon as this summer.
“This project started because Diana was passionate about this issue and found a way to use Yale resources to explore the topic and move her professional and personal interests forward,” said Brad Gentry, a professor at F&ES and Madson’s project advisor. “This is one of the ways that this school can be an incubator.

“Diana has been able to explore different organizational structures and financial structures and organizational platforms for figuring out where and how she might have the most impact after she graduates.”
Madson believes the coalition can become a transformative resources for mountain communities.

“Its approach reflects a new era of conservation that values community prosperity as integral to meaningful environmental sustainability,” she says.
“The mountain towns I am working with have an opportunity to become innovative leaders in climate planning by building dynamic communities with strong economies, diverse employment, healthy ecosystems, and world-renowned tourist destinations that nurture positive human relationships to the environment.”
– Kevin Dennehy    203 436-4842
PUBLISHED: April 29, 2014
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.