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Winter storms in the west have lacked enough snow for communities that depend on it

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Barely a week ago, the Rockies and the Northwest were pummeled with snowstorms. This winter started unusually dry, and now it's been raining at high altitudes. NPR's Kirk Siegler tells us how the whiplash winter is affecting snow-dependent economies.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: At the Sun Valley Resort in central Idaho, the parking lot, with its melting pools of slush, looks more like April than January.

DEANNE EAGLE: Yeah. It's raining in the parking lot.

SIEGLER: Visiting from New York, Deanne Eagle is not sure what skis to bring up because most of the steeper bowls she likes aren't open. She grew up skiing in Tahoe.

EAGLE: Once it started to snow, it snowed all winter. And then it didn't rain and never rained in the winter.

SIEGLER: Now, dreaded winter rain is common from California to here in Idaho.

EAGLE: It'll get cold, and then it rains, and then it melts everything. So even if you've made snow, it's gone. And it's just kind of heartbreaking.

SIEGLER: Heartbreaking, Eagle says, because winters like this make her worry about the future of skiing. And this is Sun Valley, widely held to be the birthplace of American skiing, home to the first ski resort on the continent and the first chairlift in the world.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's gay. It's exciting. It's something different under the sun, Sun Valley.

SIEGLER: In this famous enclave, climate anxiety is now gripping visitors and locals alike this winter. Writer and lifelong skier Julie Weston says the resort's relatively low altitude has always left it vulnerable.

JULIE WESTON: No, they were not thinking about global warming, but the first year it opened, which was Christmas 1936, there was no snow and they had to bus people farther up the canyon.

SIEGLER: But now Weston says it's normal over Christmas to ski thin white ribbons of artificial snow around brown forests. Already this winter, a popular cross-country ski race was canceled. Over in Yellowstone, warm temperatures also canceled sled dog races in Montana and Oregon and in Idaho this past weekend. The ski industry has tried to shield itself lately by improving the hugely energy-intensive process of making snow and also buying more carbon credits. The family that owns Sun Valley recently divested from their long ties with Sinclair Oil. And new this season are more energy-efficient lifts like this one. Now, the Sun Valley Resort declined an interview request while I've been here, citing, among other things, their first-ever sustainability manager has only been on the job for a few months.

Overall, Auden Schendler says the industry is way behind on climate action. He's been head of sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Company for 25 years.

AUDEN SCHENDLER: Look around us. Look at what's happening. You know, another record hot year. Emissions continue to climb. What we're doing to address climate change from the corporate sector and beyond, it's not working.

SIEGLER: A new report this month from Aspen says resorts should stop focusing on greening their own operations and instead push Congress for a carbon tax, including on all the jets that fly in to the resorts, and work to unseat climate deniers. Schendler says this winter is what resorts should be planning for.

SCHENDLER: Which is weird and extreme weather. And also, the science says you're more likely to see multiple dry years in a row instead of just an average one.

SIEGLER: That's a scary prospect for ski towns, where almost everyone and everything is dependent on tourism dollars.

SCOTT RUNKEL: I don't mind sitting in the rain.

SIEGLER: As the drizzle continued in Sun Valley, elevation 5,800 feet, local climate activist and science teacher Scott Runkel said there's a lot more at stake for the West than just skiing if this winter doesn't turn around.

RUNKEL: The hills are going to be clear of snow much earlier than ever. The reservoirs are going to - never going to fill up, and they're going to drain earlier. And then the fire season is going to come.

SIEGLER: Smoke, maybe even more dreaded than winter rain. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Sun Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.