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Who's to Blame?


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I was shocked to read in a recently published book that skiing is to blame for the increased intrusion of noisy, soil-ripping all-terrain vehicles on public land. The book’s author also insinuates that skiing is responsible for the “human tragedy” of impoverished Mexicans illegally crossing the border to find jobs in the mountain West.

Why such a bum rap for a sport long associated with good fellowship and love of nature? Read Downhill Slide, published by The Sierra Club and skillfully written by Hal Clifford, a former real estate writer for this magazine. I’ve seldom seen so many good facts from which so many wrong conclusions are drawn.

Clifford accurately paints the downside of the suburban sprawl enveloping our mountain valleys (neglecting to mention that similar ruin is happening on a larger scale around coastal resorts). His (and his publisher’s) agenda is to focus the blame on a few corporations with a collective market capitalization less than that of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company. American Skiing Co., Vail Resorts and Intrawest Corp., however, are not alone in developing mountain real estate. Hundreds of private developers are choking our mountain valleys with condos and shopping malls. At least the corporations invest millions to give us more ski terrain. The property-turnover artists contribute nothing but sprawl.

Gone is the carefree “golden moment,” according to Downhill Slide, when ski towns were populated by hearty folks “who loved skiing above all else.” People, like the author, who hold this view see the past through rose-colored glasses. They should look in a mirror. From the 1960s on, guess who opened real estate brokerages, became contractors and sat on the zoning and planning boards that approved new subdivisions? Most of them were Clifford’s hoary ski pioneers, who began to take less time to wedel and party, and more time to build and make money. When property prices rose, they profitably sold their homes and moved downvalley, or to Telluride, or left snow country for Cabo San Lucas, where the living is really cheap. Those who stayed-“gardeners, accountants, carpenters, interior designers, plumbers”-earn Clifford’s opprobrium as “standing to do well by increasing development.” As if it were a sin to make a living.

According to Downhill Slide, corporations advance a toxic agenda through connections with politicians who influence the U.S. Forest Service, landlord to half of national ski area visits. The agency’s budget is set in Congress, a place where, yes, lobbyists work. But for a century the agency has fulfilled its charter’s mission: to provide for multiple uses of the national forests, from logging to recreation. In principle, everyone has the right to ski in the national forests. They are a public resource for all Americans, not a place set aside for Clifford and his neighbors-ski bums, artists, cyber-commuters, restless pensioners and trust-funders.

Notwithstanding our affectionate nostalgia for the early ski towns, they were not planned for the convenience of skiers. Aspen and Stowe come to mind. Today, Intrawest-the company that built Whistler and Tremblant-meticulously plans its villages for guests who ski, yet it is intellectually fashionable for Clifford and friends to scorn Intrawest villages as merely ersatz.

I’m disappointed at the failed arguments in Downhill Slide, because I agree with so much the author has written. Yes, it would be better if resorts were community-owned, as they often are in the Alps. Vail, Steamboat and Winter Park could have bought their ski areas; they lacked the political will. History suggests the ideal resort owner is a wealthy visionary, such as a Joe Ryan (Tremblant) or Averell Harriman (Sun Valley)-a notion that Clifford rejects.

So, who’s responsible for the sprawling of our mountain valleys with second, third and sometimes fourth homes for people who already have one, and for whom hotel rooms aren’t good enough? The resorts who buuild villages next to the lifts? The hawkers of condos left empty most of the year? Is McDonald’s responsible for overweight Americans? Philip Morris for endangered smokers? Repeat instructions above: Look in the mirror. u

Columnist Fry can be found at