Salt Lake City
Great Divide Ski Area — Marysville, MT
In September of 2022, I traveled to a local ski area to solicit opinions on climate change and associated policy. Great Divide is a true Montana gem located only 22 miles from Helena. But if skiing evokes thoughts of a hoity-toity winter sport available only to the elite, consider this quote from the general manager:

We work very hard to remove the elitism from skiing. It shouldn’t be a status sport.

Great Divide is less a corporation and more a hard-working, multi-family homestead with a mission of keeping skiing unpretentious and accessible to everyone. And their attitude towards climate is one that I believe can resonate with most Americans.

Great Divide — At a Glance

    • 1600 acres — roughly 50/50 private and BLM land
    • 90 employees, 50 volunteers
    • Est. 1941 as the Belmont Ski Club. Purchased by the Taylor family in 1985. Sold to two families including a second-generation Taylor in 2020
    • 5 double chair lifts, 1 rope tow
I’m blessed to live within an hour’s drive of Great Divide. But in order to get there, you must cross its namesake — the Continental Divide. Rather than take the highway, I saddled up my dented KLR-650 motorcycle and took the adventurous route through the Helena National Forest.
Salt Lake City
Atop the Continental Divide

The divide spans our continent from north to south and determines the destination of our moisture. Precipitation west of the divide drains into the Pacific, while precipitation to the East goes to the Atlantic. As I crossed the divide, I couldn’t help but wonder — is the continental divide symbolic of our nation’s struggle with climate? On one side, we struggle with inaction and denial. On the other, we struggle with conflating climate change with progressive agendas, unhelpful alarmism, and unrealistic calls to deindustrialize. Does where we land politically predetermine our response to climate? 

My interview with Travis Crawford, General Manager and co-owner of Great Divide Ski Area, affirmed my belief that there’s a desire for level-headed climate action among independent-minded Americans. Folks like us perhaps represent a third watershed in the American climate conversation.

Travis is knowledgeable about climate and how it’s not just about warming but also about more severe and less predictable moisture and weather patterns. As he discusses climate change and its risk to his business, there’s nothing preachy in his tone. He comes across as amicable and grounded. When asked if climate change is a prevalent business topic at Great Divide, he acknowledges that it probably weighs on him the most.

When I look at my job as general manager, it’s to create a sustainable business — and manage risk. So when I start looking at my high-level risks, climate change is #1. It’s a very high risk to our long-term sustainability. It is constantly in the forefront of my thoughts as a GM.

But in Travis’ business, the impacts of climate change aren’t just theoretical. Shifting and unpredictable weather patterns are disrupting the ski business across the state and prompting spending on snowmaking infrastructure. This applies even to resorts with historically high snowfall. Great Divide’s investments are significant and ongoing:

Snowmaking is a big one to have a resilient winter in light of the changing climate. Last year we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on our snowmaking infrastructure, and I think we’re going to continue investing like that on a near-yearly basis into perpetuity.

Beyond investing in snowmaking equipment, Great Divide is considering expansion into other seasonal activities, in part to shield its business from an unpredictable climate. Great Divide also has significant expenses associated with wildfire mitigation, a problem rooted in forest mismanagement but amplified by a changing climate. 

For its part, Great Divide is doing what it can to reduce emissions and effectively manage the health of its forested lands. Travis is quick to note that in all cases, the changes they’ve made aren’t just good for the environment but good for the bottom line as well. But he recognizes that any localized effort is in vain if we can’t tackle the issue at a national and then global level.

I just don’t want more red tape. There’s so much regulation.

That’s the short version of our discussion of climate policies. Travis is convinced of the reality of climate change and the risk it poses to his business. He wants action, but he also must weigh any proposed solution against the realities of running a business today.

As a small business, we have a lot of regulatory requirements already. Anytime I’m asked to support something that adds yet another requirement, I try to think — how is it actually going to be met? Who’s going to fill out that form? Who’s going to keep track of that documentation? What is all of that going to take?

Some of Great Divide’s existing regulatory requirements are associated with its public water system, OSHA statistics, lift maintenance, and public lands stewardship.

All of this culminates in paperwork. We run leaner than almost any other small ski area, and if I have to hire additional people for reporting & compliance, that is immediately reflected in our ticket prices.

The financial burden of regulation and paper trails is palpable, and no love is lost for big government concepts like the Green New Deal. As I describe free-market approaches to tackling climate change that emphasize deregulation and revenue-neutral carbon pricing at the source, he responds enthusiastically:
We are big fans of that. I like the free market. I find it generally works itself out.
We also spoke briefly about the climate provisions in the partisan ‘Inflation Reduction Act’ (IRA) that recently passed Congress. And while we both agreed we need to do more research, one shortcoming clearly stands out:
Climate change is a global deal. When we’re talking domestic-only, that’s not the whole issue. It’s difficult for us to be incentivized to do better if it’s not a global effort.
The domestic-only weakness of the IRA is one of the strengths of a market-based solution. A market-based solution can be border-adjusted, not only to protect American manufacturing but also to ensure countries like China clean up their act as well. 

For Travis, it all boils down to depoliticization and level-headed approaches:

We’re not going to take ourselves back to pre-industrial times. But we also can’t ignore it. The data’s there. We just need common sense – that’s the biggest thing. We’re not talking hard right or hard left, we’re talking common-sense things that can make a big difference without impacting our lives too much.
Salt Lake City
Montana Traffic Jam
As I rode home and battled a herd of Black Angus gathered on the road, I reflected on Travis’ closing statements and the underlying heart and attitude they represent.
We love being a small, independent ski area. We truly consider ourselves a member of this community, and part of that means doing what we can to help solve big-picture problems. We may be a small fish in a gigantic pond, but we want to do our part to be good neighbors, community members, and stewards of the land. We want to do our part and do the right things.
I believe the vast majority of Americans, including the ranchers who manage these cows, want the same thing — to be good neighbors, community members, and stewards of the land. That’s why I’m still optimistic about our climate future. We just need to cross over the climate divide — and perhaps erode it altogether.

Kyle McIntyre lives in rural Montana where he is on a mission to make conservation conservative again. He is a family man, software builder, data scientist, Montana kid, and proud homesteader. He is also the newest addition to republicEn’s EcoRight Leadership Council.