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Ski resorts feeling the heat from rising temps, ongoing visa crisis

Ski resorts feeling the heat from rising temps, ongoing visa crisis

By David O. Williams

August 2, 2008 —  The heat is on this summer in Colorado, with record temps along the Front Range and things even feeling a little toasty around Vail, but the heat will really be on the state’s ski resorts this coming season for a different reason.

Sure, global warming is a major threat to skiing over the next half century or so, or perhaps even the next couple of decades, but what will it really matter how much snow we have or how warm things are at the beginning (November) and end (April) of the ski season if we have no one here to run the lifts or groom what snow we get?

Already understaffed last season, the state’s ski areas were banking on a returning worker exemption for H2B visas (foreign workers who have worked at resorts in previous seasons) to be passed by Congress before the August recess. It didn’t happen last week.

That means the cap of 30,000 H2B visas issued for winter resort and tourism workers has already been reached as of the end of July, and no more are available. The returning worker exemption would have freed up thousands more visas.

But a fairly simple exemption that has been regularly granted in the past is caught in the immigration reform gridlock that likely won’t be resolved until a new Congress and new presidential administration takes over in November. Still, ski industry officials aren’t giving up hope for this season.

“We are continuing to lobby Congress for a returning worker exemption,” said Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association. “We are hoping to move it in September when Congress returns from August recess.

“If Congress passes a (returning worker exemption), resorts that have completed the labor certification phase of the process will be able to submit petitions to (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) for returning workers in time to get those employees before the crucial holiday period.”

You can argue all you want to about why ski companies should be able to utilize foreign workers to operate profitable tourism operations on public lands, but the fact is that the traditional ski bum is as extinct as the dinosaur, and the only people lining up to take low-paying resort jobs are Euros, Argentines, Aussies and Kiwis who head home after the season is up.

Meanwhile, on the heat front, the days of Denver being a low- or no-air-conditioning town appear to be a distant heat-hazy memory. The cow town that used to have only one or two weeks a summer necessitating any sort of thermal-comfort device on Thursday set a record of 19 straight days with temperatures topping out at 90 degrees or above.

With a high of 100 Thursday and triple digits Friday and Saturday, the mainstream media is in a frenzy. Nothing sells papers like weather stories, with the possible exception of animal stories. Combine the two and we’re talking circ records.

Now that the consecutive-day mark is in the bag, the race is on for the overall number of 90-degree-plus days, set in 2000 with 61 days, followed by 1994 with 60 days and 2002 with 56 days. So far in ’08? Thirty-eight (including the impressive 21 in a row through Saturday).

What does all this madcap sun-soaked stat chasing mean, besides seemingly incessant talk of what type of air-conditioning unit to buy and the inherent irony of accelerating the vicious cycle through increased energy use? (At the greenest political convention of all time, the massive media tent at the DNC will be air conditioned.)

It means speculation over global climate change has become the ultimate interactive pastime. Consider this: Two of the three warmest summers in Denver history (2000, 2002) have occurred since the turn of the century and at the beginning of the state’s new oil and gas boom.

With heat records being shattered left and right, it’s interesting to note that Colorado also recently set a new record for oil rigs with 113 up and running as of July, beating the old record of 104 set during the state’s last big energy boom in 1981 – which was also the last year you didn’t need an air conditioner in Denver.

I can attest that you still don’t need A.C. in Vail (although some trophy homes, incredibly, are being built with central air). But if you need to beat the heat, head on up. Temps have been in the mid-80s.

I drove from Glenwood Springs to Vail on Saturday and watched as the thermometer drop from 92 to 70 as I drove into a little rain squall in West Vail. Sounds a little better than 104, doesn’t it?



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