There once was a saying in northern Minnesota that tourist towns "rolled up the sidewalks after Labor Day," because tourism came to a grinding halt once school began in September. During the last 30 years or so, tourism evolved into a year-round business as people discovered winter sports like snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, ice-fishing and more, and as tourism communities developed the amenities and services to accommodate winter visitors.
While winter tourism will never equal the summer vacation season, many northern Minnesota businesses now remain open year-round to meet the needs of winter tourists. In many northern communities, the business activity associated with winter tourism delivers a welcome shot of cash to the local economy. The extra money is especially welcome these days due to the downturn in logging, long a mainstay of the north woods economy.
But winter tourism is in trouble, too. Don't believe me? Try scheduling a dog sled race or a cross-country ski event that requires a snowy landscape. The venerable John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon was recently postponed due to a lack of snow...on the North Shore...in January.
Not so long ago, northern Minnesota was a place where you took winter for granted. A couple of weeks ago, I went walking with the dogs on an April-like, 50-degree January day as melt water tumbled down frozen creeks and snow disappeared from the woods. While the temperature dropped far below freezing the following day, all that remained of winter were frozen puddles, brown dirt and snow crusted like concrete. My backyard looked the same as it did in November.
Midwinter thaws and warm spells are the new normal, as are mild, extended falls and early springs. Last year, winter came to an abrupt halt when the snow melted in March. Lakes across the state set records for early ice-outs. Some state legislators even suggested advancing the spring fishing opener by a week to give northern tourist operators a chance to recover some of the business they lost to a short, snowless winter. The early fishing opener never came to a vote, but the idea of looking for ways to recover lost winter tourism revenues demands further, serious consideration.
We live in a state where winter recreational opportunities not only attract tourists but also define many Minnesotans' lifestyles. Many of us spend ample spare time and money on ice fishing, snowmobiling or cross-country skiing. We’ve developed a sizeable infrastructure to support these activities, including extensive networks of groomed snowmobile and ski trails. Across the state, thousands of people are employed by winter sports companies ranging from snowmobile or fish house manufacturers to ski shops and tackle retailers. Until now, all of the above has been dependent on cold and snow lasting from December through March.
Now, due to the warming realities of a rapidly changing climate, a good, old-fashioned Minnesota winter is just that: old-fashioned. Nowadays, we cross our fingers and hope we get enough snow and cold to make do. And that’s a problem. It’s hard to operate a winter-based business when you can’t count on cooperative weather.
If this winter and last are any indication, we’ve reached a climate crossroads for winter recreation. In both years, we’ve hardly received enough snow across most of the state to allow for consistent grooming of snowmobile and ski trails. Midwinter warm-ups have destroyed trail conditions. About the only consistent winter recreation has been ice fishing and even there, early and late ice conditions were dangerously iffy.
Looking forward, it seems reasonable to expect winters will become progressively milder with less snow. Lakes will continue to make ice, but it isn’t likely to become as thick or last as long as it once did. Wimpy winters offer fewer opportunities for traditional winter activities. So where does that leave winter tourism or the substantial manufacturing and retail economy devoted to winter sports? How long will groomed ski and snowmobile trails remain viable, especially since trail maintenance is often funded and accomplished by local volunteers?
Answering questions like these is necessary, but not easy. To my knowledge, no one is even asking them. Maybe that’s because doing so forces one to consider a heretofore unthinkable future for Minnesota—a future where traditional winters no longer exist. We’ve seen some scientific projections about the possible effects of climate change on our forests and our agriculture, but those consequences still remain comfortably distant. In contrast, the decline in winter tourism is happening here and now.
It’s time for someone to start thinking about the unthinkable. Businesses that depend on winter for all or part of their income are struggling with consecutive poor years and a very uncertain future. I doubt that many of them are seeking sympathy or subsidies, but they certainly need help finding a path to move forward in a warming world.
What we really need is a leader to recognize the issue of waning winter tourism and to rally the troops to address the decline. The obvious choice is Governor Mark Dayton, a man who doesn’t duck difficult issues and has a self-described fondness for northern Minnesota. The governor can’t wave a magic wand and make it snow, but he is in a unique position to call statewide attention to a pressing economic issue—one many northern communities can’t afford to ignore.
Perhaps it is time for Governor Dayton to convene a summit on tourism and climate change. Such an event would raise awareness of declining snow sports and serve as a launch pad for addressing our winter woes. It is unlikely the summit would lead to any simple solutions, but it could initiate a statewide, strategic effort to transition winter tourism into a warming future. We need to start that transition before winter melts away.