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Up-Hill Election?

Fall Line

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However the presidential election turns out, one thing is certain: Skiers will inhabit the White House for the first time since the days of Gerald Ford. But personal lifestyle and public policy are worlds apart, and it’s unclear whether skiing¿or any form of recreation on public lands¿will be better or worse off when the winning team takes over in January 2001.

Until the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, voters knew little about Al Gore as the outdoor man. Thanks to a nationally televised photo essay by his wife, Tipper, the country learned that the Gores enjoy wilderness outings such as hiking and canoeing, which are clearly John Muir-inspired, politically correct forms of recreation. But what viewers didn’t see were any images of the vice president on downhill skis.

As of this moment, SKI is outing the Gores. Al and Tipper are frequent¿although reclusive¿visitors to Colorado ski resorts, including Snowmass, Ajax and Vail. Tipper is a proficient, energetic skier, and last year, without the company of her husband, she mingled freely with media and participants at a veteran’s ski benefit in Crested Butte, Colo. By contrast, the vice president is more reserved, with a skiing technique that resembles his public speaking style: stiff but adequate. Still, says Vail Resorts President Andy Daly, the Gores attack the mountain as soon as the lifts open in the morning and don’t call it quits until the end of the day.

Despite the family’s love of skiing, the Gore campaign headquarters in Tennessee doesn’t have a single skiing photo in its archives. Come on, Al. Admit that you enjoy skiing, even if it isn’t the sport of The Common Man. Your friends in The Sierra Club will certainly understand if you dabble with developed winter recreation.

And what about the GOP ticket? Republican vice-president candidate Dick Cheney, who owns a home near Jackson Hole, Wyo., is not a stranger to the slopes, although his favorite escape seems to be flyfishing. As for George W. Bush, he has his father’s passion for fishing, hunting and boating, but no one¿including campaign spokesmen in Austin, Texas¿can ever recall Dubya boarding a chairlift. Former Republican vice-president candidate Jack Kemp, who is a longtime friend of the family and himself an avid skier, promises he’ll change that if Bush wins the election. “We’ll get him up to Montana,” vows Kemp, who is involved with The Yellowstone Club, an ultra-exclusive, private ski resort located next to Big Sky, Mont.

Skiing certainly gets a boost when high-profile political families show up at the mountains. Ex-President Gerald Ford, who has long been identified with the Vail Valley, still has a home in Beaver Creek. The Kennedy clan is well-known for its winter gatherings at Aspen. And, after leaving the White House, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter took up skiing in their 60s. In fact, they are now regular visitors to Crested Butte, where an annual charity skiing event called President and Mrs. Carter’s Winter Weekend raises money for The Carter Center.

But the current presidential election is not about personalities; it’s about policies. And here the agenda of the two parties gets a little fuzzy when it comes to skiing. As resort owners generally admit, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats historically have shown much interest in making outdoor recreation on public land a high priority. During the days of the Bush administration, the U.S. Forest Service was encouraged to promote extractive uses such as timber-harvesting, mining and grazing¿the so-called “board-feet-and-red-meat” philosophy. When the Clinton-Gore administration took over, there were some initial noises from Forest Service chief Michael Dombeck about emphasizing recreational use. But those were soon drowned out by the government’s zeal to enact a sweeping roadless area initiative that could hamper ski area expansion in national forests, particularly in the West.

Many resort executes believe that the federal government has shown its true colors by pushing for revisions of forest master plans¿particularly in White River National Forest in Colorado¿that favor biodiversity, preservation and restricted recreation over increased public access and use. Never mind that skiing is a concentrated activity that involves less than 1 percent of Forest Service land. Keeping people out of roadless and wilderness areas is now the mantra of Washington policymakers, and there is little doubt that Vice President Gore was an architect of that plan. Thus, you can sum up the last 12 years of federal policies by saying that the ski industry was “Bushwhacked” by one administration and “Gored” by the other.

“At this point recreation is not a major focus of either campaign,” says Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy organization that represents a variety of industry and user-group interests. “With the current administration, there is intellectual agreement that recreation is important. The problem is that it seems to be largely subordinate to the concept of ecosystem management,” he explains. “What is lost in this pure science policy is the need to address some major health and social issues¿including the fact that 300,000 Americans die prematurely because of physical inactivity and that fewer children are being introduced to the outdoors.” Crandall, who served as an advisor to the senior Bush during the 1988 presidential campaign, says he believes that George W. would “put recreation at the top of the list in terms of national forest management,” whereas it would be only among the top three or four policy directives of a Gore administration.

Kemp, an acknowledged partisan, goes even further. “The Bushes are maniacal recreation folks. Knowing the family as well as I do, I am certain that George W. would be very pro-recreation. By contrast, Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance book is a road map to shutting down any possible recreation expansion in the Western states. The difference in the candidates is that Bush favors a balance between public use and the environment while Gore tilts toward wilderness and extreme environmentalism.” Kemp, who has a home in Vail, says he is glad that the Gores have visited there and hopes they get to understand the role of ski resorts in the national forest management plan.

While resort owners are largely a conservative, Republican crowd, the pro-Gore forces have more than a few friends in Aspen Skiing Company. “The environment weighs disproportionately high with our staff of 3,000 employees,” says Bill Kane, Aspen’s vice president of planning, “so I think that it’s fair to say the majority would favor the Democratic agenda.” Last year, Aspen tried to enlist the support of other ski areas for a proposed Colorado wilderness protection bill, but didn’t get a single taker. “We believe that wilderness on public lands enhances the skier experience, and we have no problem with having it surround our ski areas,” Kane adds. “After all, our clients come here to get away from the cities.”

Despite their enthusiasm for a “green” ticket, Aspen executives concede that there is industry-wide paranoia in the West over how the Clinton administration’s¿and therefore a Gore administration’s¿roadless initiative will be administered by the Forest Service and how it will impact ski areas. “This policy is not well presented or explained,” says Kane. “We can’t even get an answer on whether a ski trail constitutes a road, and so it makes land-use planning difficult.” Under current proposals, the Forest Service would generally prohibit road construction or reconstruction in sections of public lands that exceed 5,000 acres in size and that qualify as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Forest Service managers would call the shots on what, if any, recreation would be allowed in these zones.

How would a Bush or Gore administration affect the ski industry? There’s a suspicion, voiced by ski managers who prefer not to be quoted, that two extremes¿restricting ski expansion on one hand or promoting unchecked development on the other¿are the choices that skiing voters face this November.nistration affect the ski industry? There’s a suspicion, voiced by ski managers who prefer not to be quoted, that two extremes¿restricting ski expansion on one hand or promoting unchecked development on the other¿are the choices that skiing voters face this November.