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Fast Times At Mountain High


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Seventy years ago when Otto Schniebs declared, “Skiing is not a sport, it’s a way of life,” the Dartmouth ski coach probably didn’t dream that his lifestyle would one day include a form of urban sprawl. It’s remarkable. Downhill sliding has produced communities that are multiplying more rapidly than ant colonies.

Utah’s Summit County-home to Park City, Deer Valley and The Canyons, and of this winter’s Olympic ski competitions-almost doubled in population between 1990 and 2000, from 15,500 to 29,700 residents. What an apt venue for a one-time amateur sports event that itself has become bloated and commercialized beyond recognition!

Americans are heading to higher elevations! The nation’s five fastest growing states are all mountainous: Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Idaho. Four ski-spawned communities make up one-fifth of America’s 20 fastest expanding counties. In addition to Utah’s Summit County, the others are in Colorado’s Rockies: Eagle County, home of Vail and Beaver Creek; Summit, home of Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper and A-Basin; and San Miguel, containing Telluride. The populations of the four counties grew by 89 percent over the last decade, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

These places were once pristine forest and ranching land, or mining towns abandoned after the price of silver collapsed in the late 19th century. Then, halfway into the 20th century, pioneers like Vail’s Pete Seibert and Keystone’s Max Dercum arrived. They saw the mountainsides covered with dry powder snow. Up went lifts.

With the lifts came inns, shops, condos, second homes. People, freed by computer and email, moved or retired to live next to the slopes. Real estate has often become a bigger business than skiing. Property sales in the Vail Valley grew by nearly 400 percent during a time when skier activity rose by less than 40 percent. Skiing and boarding grew by 8 percent in the Rocky Mountain region in the Nineties. That’s one-eighth of the growth rate of the resort towns themselves. What’s going on?

What’s going on is that even though they aren’t skiing a whole lot more, Americans are choosing to live amid the dazzling mountain scenery popularized by skiing. Like the guy in Times Square who wears a down parka in winter, they like the ski look. Americans have come to view the slopes and lifts-once the reason for the resort’s existence-as a casual amenity, like golf. The lifestyle doesn’t come cheap. The average price of a single family home in Vail is $1.1 million; of a typical condo, $456,000.

Not all ski-country residents are thrilled by the idea of having moved to one of the nation’s fastest growing places. Many second homeowners, retirees, workers and greens say they’d be happy to shut the gates. What they fear is the destruction of the beauty that first brought them to the mountains. Scarce valley land is filling with suburban-like malls of fast-food and convenience stores-the 21st century equivalent of the ore tailings and slope erosion caused by 19th century miners and loggers.

“All of the qualities that drew us here are being compromised by the influx of too many people too fast,” says Colorado filmmaker Roger Brown. Once a Vail resident, Brown moved 40 miles west to Gypsum in 1976 to escape traffic and fireplace smog and too many people. Now he faces the prospect of looking down on a real estate development of 600 homes and a golf course on 900 acres below his Gypsum home. He will likely move again.

“It’s tragic,” Brown says. “Some of the nation’s most beautiful country is filling with people. Instead of adapting to rural living, they bring along fixed lifestyles and ego-boosting trophy homes.” So far, concerns of people like Brown haven’t done much to arrest the population explosion. Nor does anyone seem able to prevent the choking of valleys with second homes occupied only a few weeks a year. When there’s opposition, it appears only to encourage growth, since it suggests a community concerned with presserving its beauty. Colorado’s Pitkin County, home of Aspen, has been ruled for years by environmentally concerned commissioners opposed to growth. Yet Pitkin’s population still managed to increase by 17 percent in the Nineties. In down-valley Garfield County and Glenwood Springs, home to workers who can’t afford to live in Aspen, the population soared by 46 percent.

Here’s an ominous scenario for what can happen to ski towns dominated by wealthy homeowners: The number of jobs in Pitkin trebled in the last 25 years while the county’s population merely doubled, yet the number of skiers is no higher than it was two decades ago.

The influx of people into snow country isn’t slowing. Eight counties that account for roughly one-sixth of U.S. ski lift capacity added 150,000 residents in the Nineties. Many are Hispanic. These typically low-paid workers provide the cleaning, chambermaiding and grunt services that enable ski resorts to fulfill their proclaimed need to offer vacations cost-competitive with cruise ships and beach resorts. In Colorado’s Eagle County, home of Vail and Beaver Creek, Latinos now number almost one in four residents, double the national ratio. . . and accelerating. And this is a segment of the population that typically doesn’t ski. The college ski bum, as if you haven’t heard, is as endangered as the Canada lynx.

The new ski-area conglomerates increasingly rely for profits on real estate sales and their ownership of shops and restaurants. They are abetted by people migrating to the mountains to find the holy grail of Otto Schniebs’ lifestyle. The engine of growth is roaring. While many of us worry about preserving roadless areas on public land, the battle for intelligent development is being lost in privately owned mountain valleys, where subdivisioning rages on. Future generations are unlikely to judge us kindly.