Why the Mayor of Salt Lake City Thinks Backcountry Skiers Should Care About the UN Climate Change Summit in Paris

The United Nations is at the brink of a historic global agreement on climate change that could limit carbon emissions. The accord is being negotiated right now on the outskirts of Paris at a two-week summit known as COP21.

While most diplomats don’t know their left ski from their right, that’s not the case for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, part of a delegation of 15 U.S. mayors attending the conference. Becker, 63, is a longtime backcountry skier as comfortable talking about the split jet stream currently plaguing the Wasatch as he is about the finer points of urban planning.

On Friday, he was among more than 1,000 mayors gathered at Paris City Hall to attend the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, hosted by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. Among the suits-and-ties clutching attaché cases and crowding the building’s baroque salons, Becker stood out with an REI pack—carabiner attached—slung over his shoulder. Greg Scruggs, a backcountry skier and UN correspondent for Citiscope, caught up with Salt Lake City’s powderhound-in-chief to talk skiing, climate change and parting thoughts at the end of his two terms as SLC’s mayor.

Mayor Ralph Becker at COP21. | Paris, France | [Photo]

Amid the suits, Mayor Ralph Becker rocks a pack in Paris City Hall at COP21. | Paris, France | [Photo] Greg Scruggs

Greg Scruggs: How often did you take a few laps before hitting a city council meeting?

Ralph Becker: My days start too early and end too late. Plus, the few times I’ve gone out backcountry skiing, I’m so well known that people recognize me and then ask, “Why is the mayor out skiing on a weekday?” I only got about 20 days per season as mayor, which isn’t much in Salt Lake.

GS: Even in Salt Lake City, there’s no political consensus for municipal powder days?

RB: Of course, what I say is: “This is watershed inspection.” [Laughs] The head of our public utility and some people who work there are also backcountry skiers, so we always describe our tours as “watershed inspection.”

GS: Why should skiers care about climate change?

RB: What’s happening with the Wasatch and all the higher elevation mountains around the world is that snowpack is diminishing. Any of us who have been around for a while can see it, but the quantitative information is very clear. If we want to continue to have an economy for ski areas or adequate areas for skiing, we need to care about what’s happening with a warming climate. You hear about glaciers, but the same thing is happening in the Wasatch Mountains right outside of Salt Lake.

With shrinking snowpack from the warming planet and a warming region, it means that the areas for good skiing are diminishing and the competition for good skiing is becoming highly competitive. As backcountry skiing has become more and more popular, what we’re seeing is a greater challenge to find that fresh powder that we love in the Wasatch.

It’s affecting our snowpack for recreation, but most importantly it’s affecting our water supply. It affects all of us—we have a lot to do if we’re going to be successful.

GS: Very few backcountry skiers are lucky enough to hit the skintrack out their back door. That means a lot of us drive to trailheads, say, to escape Salt Lake City smog, which, in a place like the Wasatch, paradoxically makes the problem worse. Do backcountry skiers need to change their behavior?

RB: Absolutely. This is an intensely debated topic among the backcountry skiers I know, but we also need to be part of the solution by driving less. It’s tough to get people out of single-occupancy vehicles when they’re going for a dawn patrol, getting up before dark, trying to get the first turns in. Or when we have difficult schedules in our urban worlds. We need to look at providing transit solutions so that we use our vehicles less.

Among the backcountry community, what I see is that most people get nervous about losing the flexibility of having a vehicle and always being on their own schedule. They are not thinking longer term about what our carbon footprint is from fossil fuel use, that today at least comes from vehicles.

Mayor Becker atop a ridge between Parley's, Toll, and Lamb Canyons. | Wasatch Mountains, Utah | Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Becker

Mayor Becker atop a ridge between Parley’s, Toll and Lamb Canyons. | Wasatch Mountains, Utah | Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Becker

GS: Could it be as simple as committing to carpooling with your touring partner rather than both meeting at the trailhead?

RB: Carpooling certainly helps, and because of limiting parking in a place like the Wasatch, we find that people tend to carpool quite a bit anyway. But it also means thinking long term about supporting the investments in transit so we don’t have to rely as heavily on our cars to get where we’re going.

GS: We’re in Paris, where we could hop on a train right now to some jaw-dropping backcountry terrain in Chamonix. Can you envision similar transportation that could make backcountry terrain accessible in the Wasatch?

RB: I’ve skied the Alps two or three times. Absolutely, particularly in a place like Salt Lake [that transportation could work]. We are 30-to-40 minutes from our major ski areas [and] we already have rail serving our valley pretty well. If we follow the model that we see in the Alps of a good mountain rail system, we would not even have to use our vehicles much at all to continue to access our backcountry terrain.

It’s a tough sell because it means there’s a lot of upfront investment, but from my vantage point if we think long term, from an economic point of view, of reducing the impact on the environment and having the best mountain system in the world that’s accessible with low impact, rail should be at the forefront of our desires.

GS: Of course, on our hypothetical train trip to Chamonix, we’d then hop on a téléphérique up to the Aiguille du Midi. But you opposed the SkiLink gondola proposal under the premise that it would take away backcountry terrain in the Wasatch. What have you done about it?

RB: In the aftermath of SkiLink, I and some other folks said we have got to stop this from ever happening again. We got all the local government officials, the ski resorts, the local environmental groups together—it’s called the Mountain Accord. We signed it this summer.

It would preserve land up there and stop anything like SkiLink from ever happening again. The community is solidly in favor of doing that. Our congressional delegation [which supported the sale of public lands to allow SkiLink] was completely out of touch.

The Mountain Accord addresses how we protect terrain, landscapes, water supply, but also how we provide transit solutions so that we’re not having greater impacts on the mountain environment. It also [speaks] to climate change in terms of us having a smaller carbon footprint when we go and recreate. That is very seldom appreciated because we tend to be pretty selfish—“Look, I want to go when I want to go. I’ll buddy up with the people I’m skiing with to lessen the impact”—but longer term, it also means other modes, in particular transit, which means investing in more bus service [and] probably in rail. We all need to contribute to reducing our carbon emissions.

In Salt Lake City, we’re scraping together the dollars we can to give people options for how they get around. Those federal dollars, a lot of them get filtered into state highway or local road programs. The greatest activism in the Wasatch front region today is around active transportation.

GS: Electric vehicles have been the talk of the town at COP21, notably from governors and premiers of ski-heavy states and provinces like British Columbia, California, Québec, Vermont, and Washington. While their limited range doesn’t make sense for epic journeys into the wilderness, for a short hop from downtown SLC, could that one be one alternative? Do we need charging stations at the Alta Lodge?

RB: Certainly electric vehicles could make a difference, but we still have limited parking. As our population and visitation [numbers] grow, it becomes more important to look at transit solutions. Our roads up Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons are already overcrowded and we can’t easily provide for more space without structured parking. Regardless of what source of energy we’re using, we need to think about how we reduce the impact on our mountain environments.

GS: What are your plans as you prepare to leave office? Will you continue your advocacy on behalf of the Wasatch?

RB: I don’t have any plans yet. I’ve been very heavily involved in protecting the Wasatch and this Mountain Accord effort, but I’m hopeful that I can be constructive and helpful in seeing some of that get implemented now.

I leave office on January 1, and I’m hoping to slow down. Along with my wife and kids, I’m going to the San Juan Mountains for three weeks. I’m looking for advice. When I skied at Silverton, I noticed some good tracks taking off as you get close to the resort. All I know is they’ve been getting better snow, as much as I hate to admit it.

One of my sons could never I understand why I backcountry ski. Why go uphill when I can take a lift? But now he hardly ever goes to resorts. He became a splitboarder. He actually scares me, some of the terrain he gets into. Not avalanche conditions; he’s really careful about avalanches. But he’ll get into these chutes with 20-to-30-foot drops.

GS: Do you have any secret stashes in the Wasatch?

RB: Yeah but I’m not going to tell you. [Laughs]

GS: In general, what’s your favorite place to ski in Utah?

RB: It’s the Wasatch, but that’s also the area I know the best. There’s some great skiing in the Uintas, some of the desert ranges. Stansbury, Deseret Peak. [But], the accessibility of the Wasatch is so unparalleled.

GS: Do you anticipate structuring your life post-City Hall around the winter season?

RB: My goal is that any time I am in town and it’s a powder day, I’m going to be taking advantage of it.

Greg Scruggs is the UN correspondent for Citiscope. When he’s not listening to diplomats blather on, he hits the backcountry in New York and New England, often writing about his northeastern adventures for the NY Ski Blog.

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  1. He’s right, of course, and if you don’t feel like your world has changed yet, it’s about to in ways that you couldn’t imagine

  2. I recently heard on NPR about the new Chinese rail system that is electric and charges at each station. The system runs on a track laid in the road system not above so there are no wires about the system. There is no electricity in the track the system charges at the station in less than several minutes. We should be thinking about the same system in the Wasatch. The problem is these systems have to run 24 hours a day 7 days a week every 15 minutes. The current system is inadequate and runs maybe on the 1/2 hour or hour. That simply will not work in America. We will never invest the type of money needed to make it work. I started buying a pass to Alta, I live east of Park City in Oakley. I thought well use the transit system to get from Salt Lake to Alta so I decided to try it. I drove to 6200 where the bus stops. The driver said I am full from other stops so you will have to wait another hour. That was it, I decided this is ridiculous, so I did like anyone in America will do, screw it I will drive my care. That is the problem, we will not provide the money for a system to work. Anyone in America is not going to work all week to put up with that type of poor service period. The entire idea of rapid transit will never happen in the Wasatch because they won’t fund it and make it affordable. It currently charges one of the highest rates in the US to use its services. The current discussion is all lip service.

  3. Unless an attractive and viable alternative actually materializes, chances are that the motor vehicle is always going to be the ‘preferred’ transit of choice. Unless we all learn to ski for when the nuclear winter comes…just a thought.

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