The Winter Sports world plays an outsized role in the Green-Sports movement. This makes sense, when one considers climate change is responsible for shortened outdoor pond hockey seasons, canceled ski races, and more. GreenSportsBlog is taking an in-depth look at the intersection of Green & Winter Sports with an occasional series, “Winter Sports Drives Green-Sports.”
In the first three installments, we highlighted winter sports athletes who are also environmental activists: Cross country skiers Erika Flowers-Newell (Part 1) and Andy Newell (Part 2) (yes, they’re married to each other) as well as Olympic silver medal winning snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler (Part 3).
Today, we take a different path with “The POWer of Protect Our Winters.” In it, we look at Protect Our Winters, or POW, an amazing organization of elite winter sports athletes, including Andy Newell and Gretchen Bleiler, which advocates for substantive action on climate, especially as it relates to mountain and snow sports.
Protect Our Winters (POW) is, without doubt, one of the most impactful organizations in the Green-Sports world.
It may also be the most important athlete activist group in the world.
The only climate change action advocacy group led by athletes, POW’s Riders Alliance is made up over 100 current and retired professional skiers, snowboarders and more. They give talks on climate change to student groups and take part in climate marches. Most impressively, it says here, POW lobbies members of Congress and other elected officials on climate change-related legislation.
Are there other like groups of activist athletes in other sports? I don’t know of any.
We got a sense of the POW from the athlete point of view in recent interviews with cross country skier Andy Newell and snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler. Today, we are pleased to give you a different perspective — that of the POW staff — as we talk with Lindsay Bourgoine, manager of advocacy and campaigns, and senior brand manager Barbara Weber.
GreenSportsBlog: How did both of you end up at POW?
Lindsay Bourgoine: Well, I come from Maine and grew up outdoors, climbing mountains and skiing — I love downhill and back country. I got into policy end of things and worked in that arena for the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Outdoor Industry Association. I’ve always strived to find opportunities as the intersection of environmental advocacy and the outdoor industry. We have such an incredible opportunity to leverage our impact to better the planet. Once I found out about POW, I fell in love with it. I mean, the impact of our athletes is so authentic and effective.
Barbara Weber: I’m from Northern Michigan and started skiing when I was three; we got a ton of lake effect snow. At 12, I went to the “dark side,” aka snowboarding. Eventually, I went to Michigan State…
Barbara: Go Sparty! In school I studied advertising. I’m fascinated with what motivates people psychologically. But when I moved to Chicago to pursue a “Big Girl Ad Agency” job, I knew after my first interview that it wasn’t the world I wanted to be in. I found myself working in the local Patagonia shop while I “figured things out” and they really laid the foundation for the path I’d find myself on for the next 10 years.
GSB: What a fantastic turn of events! Patagonia is beyond great.
Barbara: Indeed. I worked for a local Patagonia store in Vail before moving on to a marketing position with Ski.com, essentially selling ski vacations. It was while I was working at that Patagonia store when I first found out about POW. I think that was around 2009-2010.
GSB: You were busy!
Barbara: For sure. While at ski.com, I was also serving a two-year term on a non-profit board in Aspen (where I had relocated) called Spring Board. POW had stuck with me and I had been trying to find an intersection between my personal desire to give back and make an impact for the benefit of our environment, and with my professional career. For three years at Ski.com I pushed to get them involved with POW. After all, there won’t be many ski vacations in the future if we don’t tackle this issue.
GSB: So true…
Barbara: I left ski.com in 2013 and after a bit of travel, a series of fateful events led me to landing my current role with POW when they were based in Los Angeles. I’ve been with POW since June 2014.
GSB: An odd place for something called Protect Our Winters but, OK…So you were at POW in LA…What was it like?
Barbara: It was a lot of work — but the best kind. I found a fire in me that had been waiting to be lit. It felt as if my background and personality were the perfect fit for the position and vice versa. I was fired up. And I’m still fired up. And the funny thing about avoiding the career of advertising per se; is that in a way, it’s exactly what I’m doing. But instead of selling a material item, I’m selling an idea. I’m selling activism.
Part of my job involves working with our incredible group of professional athletes.
Getting to know them over the years has been something I’ll always be grateful for. This group is so passionate, so thoughtful, insightful, and genuine. I think from the outside it can be easy to look and them and find ways to be critical, but they really work hard to become knowledgeable about climate change, both from the science and political sides, and leverage their influence as pros to inspire other people to get involved in this fight.
GSB: I sure was inspired talking with Andy Newell and Gretchen Bleiler. These are world class athletes, Olympians…and they’re knowledgeably lobbying members of Congress on climate change? How do they have the time? Where do they get the inspiration?
Barbara: I can’t speak for each Riders Alliance member but, in general, it seems as though winter sports athletes — POW athletes — spend so much time outside, in nature…it’s natural they would appreciate it. I mean, they have an intimate interaction with the outdoors.
GSB: That makes sense, but what motivates them to speak up about climate change? Don’t they worry that being “political” could put their sponsorship relationships at risk?
Barbara: Well, snowboarders, skiers and the rest are already outside the traditional athlete world to a certain extent. There’s a natural rebelliousness to this community, particularly the snowboarders. They’ve found a way to make a living most of us could only dream of, and are often rewarded for thinking unconventionally and for taking risks. So many of them are OK with going outside their comfort zones.
What is really great is that POW athletes do their homework on climate and know their stuff. In fact, our athletes who go to Washington often report that members of Congress are slack-jawed at their knowledge and expertise.
GSB: As someone who has presented to Congress on climate issues with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, I can tell you that house members and senators are hard to impress. That holds true with their staffers. So getting a slack-jawed reaction is a big deal. Also a big deal is POW’s Riders Alliance Summit…
Barbara: Absolutely. It’s our biggest event of the year that we do with the athletes. We use it as our opportunity to bring them up to speed on the latest climate science, how to effectively communicate climate facts and information, provide them with social media and public speaking training, and other meaningful ways to engage in advocacy. To me, though, I think one of the biggest takeaways is the sense of community and camaraderie the summit evokes. It’s good for these athletes to see each other in person, commiserate on their experiences, become friends and supporters of each other.
GSB: The camaraderie is so great to hear about, especially given that some of these athletes compete against each other. Now, speaking of lobbying, talk to us about POW’s lobby days on Capitol Hill and elsewhere…
Lindsay: Well, there were 13 POW athletes at our most recent lobbying effort on the Hill a few months back. This was our biggest contingent to date; with partners and staff, we had 25 total. One of our goals this time was to work on forming relationships with Republican lawmakers, which we did by focusing on our passion for, and love of the outdoors. Sometimes, this bill and that endorsement and that policy get in the way. We need to remember we’re all people, and for the most part, we can all connect over our mutual love of the outdoors. Climate change threatens that. So, we went into offices, talked about who we are and what we do, reflected on the changes we see in the field, and then asked how they could help us address the issue. If they asked for more specifics, or if they were more amenable to our cause, we talked about our priority issues: carbon pricing, solar energy, and electrifying transportation.
GSB: …That’s great about meeting with Republicans; otherwise, POW would simply be preaching to the converted…How many members of Congress did you get to meet with this time around?
Lindsay: We met with 22 members, half of whom are part of the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, which includes an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. Snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, pro fly fisherman Hilary Hutcheson, as well as our board chair and VP of Aspen Skiing Company, Auden Schendler spoke on behalf of POW. Gretchen talked about how impactful the cancellation of competitions can be, especially on rural mountain towns at the beginning of the season — for example, if Birds of Prey at Beaver Creek (CO) is cancelled, that’s $4-6 million gone from the local economy, just in a weekend.
Hilary recounted how her insurance adjuster told her if she kept working as a fly fishing guide outside of Glacier National Park in Montana with the poor air quality from nearby forest fires, he would cancel her policy. She literally couldn’t guide — and earn an income — because the air quality from fire smoke was so dangerous. Climate is impacting her way of life. And Auden spoke about how ski resorts lose money in low snowfall years and the snowball effect on the economy. It was very powerful to speak to this bipartisan group– very uplifting to see lawmakers on both sides of the aisle really listen and come together to educate themselves on these issues and impacts. This hearing was definitely the highlight of the trip.
GSB: I hope the GOPers with whom you spoke vote in a POW-like manner sooner rather than later. Now, one thing I’ve noticed as a Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteer is that the number of volunteers skyrocketed after Trump’s election. Have you seen something similar at POW? Also has Trump’s election had any effects on the issues POW takes on, the tone and aggressiveness with which it does so, etc.
Lindsay: People can no longer afford to be apathetic as our climate is under attack day after day. Now, more than ever, our community is asking us “how can we help” over and over. Our community is stepping up to the challenge. In a way, this is a silver lining of Trump’s election. Now, does it make it harder when there is an unfriendly administration? Yes. That just means we have to work harder to fight the fights that need to be fought and to get creative to see if there are any places we can potentially work with Republicans. I would say one way the results of Trump’s election is that we are looking opportunistically at actions in state legislatures.
There is a ton of progress being made there, especially on carbon pricing in winter sports states like Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.
GSB: Are there Trump-supporting POW athletes? If so, how is that working out?
Lindsay: I can’t speak to that specifically, but we do have Republican athletes. We have always worked to be bipartisan and if anything, put even more of an effort into that this year in our DC lobbying. We know climate is deeply politicized, but we don’t believe it should be. The Republican party is the only conservative party in the world that denies climate change. We just need to get to a place where it is safe for Republicans to talk about climate. You’d be surprised; many of them understand and agree, they just care about being re-elected, too. It’s tough. Our goal is to elect climate friendly officials, regardless of what party.
GSB: That’s all very important…so good luck. Turning to next year, with the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang only two months away, how might that mega-event affect POW?
Barbara: Well, 2018 being an Olympic year helps POW. It amplifies the visibility of our athletes who end up being part of their Olympic teams. That helps us in the long run when it comes to the platforms they use to speak out against climate change. Additionally, we’ve found politicians tend to geek out when one of our athletes brings an Olympic medal or two to our lobby day meetings. Mainly, though, the Olympics will probably just decrease our productivity those two weeks it takes place, as we’ll be anxiously watching the competitions and supporting our athletes when we should be working! We’ll for sure be having a viewing party or two in the office.
GSB: Sounds like a lot of fun — y’all deserve it! I hope to see NBC Sports feature a POW athlete or two at the Olympics. What are POW’s main goals in 2018?
Lindsay: Our main goal in 2018 is to get down and dirty in the midterm elections in November. POW is working on establishing a 501(c)4, which will allow us to get more engaged in elections as an organization. We have identified ten ‘battleground elections’ where we feel it is really important to elect a climate friendly leader, whether Democrat or Republican — I want to be clear that we are not working to help the Democrats take the House. We will execute all of our programs in those ten areas — whether going into schools for Hot Planet Cool Athletes assemblies to get kids talking about the importance of climate change, or hosting educational events. Our objective is to make people more aware of their role in elections, help them understand the importance of electing climate friendly leaders, and push the conversation in each election to cover climate change.
GSB: We will stay tuned throughout 2018 to see how POW makes out in those 10 races. One last question: What are POW’s expansion plans, if any? Are you looking to move beyond winter sports?
Barbara: We want to engage the broader outdoor industry in POW’s work. This is already happening — we’re signing trail runners, climbers, anglers, guides, and mountain bikers. We’re working to bridge the gap with hunters and find ways to collaborate. The reality is climate change impacts all of us, whether it’s too hot to mountain bike or there’s not enough water in rivers to paddle or to support viable fish habitat.
Want to see the true POWer of POW? Watch this 1 minute 5 second video.