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Is skiing doomed at Granite Peak?
The DNR's Master plan calls for an increase to the ski area, despite predicting a drastic decrease in skiable months
As someone who has cross country skied for life in the Wausau area, I can feel downhill skier’s pain: it just ain’t like it used to be.
As I often tell people, when I was a kid growing up in Wausau, the question was always whether or not there would be snow by Dec. 1. Often, there was at least some dusting of snow by Thanksgiving. And it’s hard to remember a Christmas without snow.
It would always fascinate me to go visit family in Milwaukee over the holidays and not see snow on the ground, or very little of it. (Sometimes there was snow.) It was of note because there was always snow on the ground in Wausau.
That was the 1980s and 90s. Milwaukee’s situation back then is Wausau’s today. There have been times recently where January comes without any or much snowfall (or a covering that subsequently melts). I finally bought a fat bike last winter because I got sick of the skis sitting in the closet. (Fat bikes can be ridden year round and aren’t as reliant on snow conditions.)
It’s that change that prompted the Department of Natural Resources to release a separate report on climate change and how it will impact skiing at Granite Peak in addition to its master plan for Rib Mountain State Park. That report comes as the department released its draft plan for the mountain park.
The draft plan, which residents will get to weigh in on at a public meeting Nov. 3 (4-7 pm at Northcentral Technical College), does call for skiing expansion. But it also includes a report that’s pretty dim on the prospects of downhill skiing in the area in the near and long-term future.
There’s an irony, since the whole master plan revamp started after Granite Peak asked for an expansion back in late 2014. It was one of the first stories I covered upon moving back to Wausau from Stevens Point, and now the new master plan will include a number of activities. Granite Peak will be only a small part of that change.
A little background
Granite Peak held a press conference in 2014 to announce it was seeking an expansion of its ski area it leases. Charles Skinner, who just bought two resorts in Michigan as well as owning Granite Peak and Lutsen in Minnesota, told reporters at the time that without expansion the ski area wouldn’t be able to survive. It’s eight years later now, almost exactly, and Granite Peak is surviving.
Backlash started almost immediately. Leave Rib Mountain Alone signs popped up in the surrounding town and in yards throughout Wausau. You still occasionally see some of them today.
Granite Peak officials held meetings, listened to the public, downsized their plans. They changed at least twice that I recall, even moving the area they planned to expand to. Part of the reason for the expansion was for more beginner and intermediate runs, versus the expert trails at the top of the hill.
Under the new plan released Thursday, Granite Peak will be allowed to expand from 412 acres to 512 acres (using GIS mapping, not the deed, a footnote mentions). The expansion, according to the map, would give Granite Peak some land to both the east and west. Turkey Vulture and Homestead hiking trails will reroute under the plan but will remain intact.
In addition, the plan calls for a lot of mountain bike trails, of all skill levels, on the north side of the mountain and inside the Granite Peak lease area. They also want to add a day area near South Mountain Elementary School (a staging area for races and such), which might also include a pump track. According to a map, there could be up to 26 miles of biking (though likely it would be less than that total, since that assume the maximum possibility in each section).
Also included in the plan are a proposed campground area, updated facilities at the top of the mountain, bouldering areas (short rock climbs without ropes) and additional hiking and snowshoeing trails.
Also interesting is that under the plan the DNR would acquire more land for the park, including attempting to secure a corridor between Nine Mile Forest and Rib Mountain. About 450 acres would be added in total, according to the newly released plan. Those areas are to the south and west of the current park.
But expect a short ski season
Although the plans for Rib Mountain Park call for ski expansion, experts hired by the DNR aren’t bullish on the potential for much downhill skiing in the future.
Climate change consultants expect the ski season to decrease by as much as 40% by 2050, bringing the ski season from around five months to three or less.
Between 1950 and 2020, night time temperatures at Rib Mountain on average have increased by 6 degrees, and daytime temperatures on average have increased by 4 degrees. Climate scientists expect that to continue, with temps growing by 7 degrees at night at Rib Mountain and 5 degrees during the day.
Precipitation has been increasing in the 1950-2020 time frame — so that’s good, right? Well, unfortunately a lot more of that has become rain, and more of that will be rain in the coming decades, the report says.
All that affects the ability to make snow. Right now there generally are 34-73 snowmaking days in a typical season; by late century that could be as low as 16-43 days, according to the report. In other words, the best snowmaking season season in the future will have just seven more snowmaking days (generally 28 degrees or colder) than the worst season right now. 1
And while some areas saw big increases in skier visits, the midwest saw declines. The Midwest saw 6.8 million ski visits in 2020-2021, down from nearly 7.1 million visits in 2019-2020, according to data from the National Ski Area Association. (Of note though is besides 2019-2020 last season was still higher than any since 2014-2015.)
Shifting recreation realities
There is sort of an unstated assumption baked into the map of the recreation areas. I think it’s likely something DNR officials saw coming. The new master plan, if ultimately approved, would reposition the hill to focus on mountain biking and hiking, bouldering and other non-snow dependent sports, with less emphasis on snow sports.
Cross-country skiing is barely mentioned, for example, though there was a lot of support. (It does appear that there might be some opportunities for XC skiing if the DNR acquires additional land for the park.) If I were to venture a guess, though, I’d bet they would be multi-use trails that also allow fat bikes, since that sport is taking off.
And otherwise snow sports don’t get a lot of mention in the plan at all. Though fat bikes are flying off the shelves, the plan doesn’t mention them (I searched “fat bike” and “snow bike” - fat-tire bikes comes up in the definitions section only).
It seems to be a plan to change the park in relation to the area’s changing climate. It might be why the DNR decided to relook at the whole park’s plan in the first place.
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Of course, all this is based on modeling projecting out future conditions based on current data.