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Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment Paperback – October 1, 2003
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"[This] book should be mandatory reading."--Los Angeles Times -- Review
About the Author
Hal Clifford is the author of The Falling Season: Inside the Life and Death Drama of Aspen's Mountain Rescue Team, winner of the Colorado Council for the Arts Prize for Best Non-Fiction, and Highroad Guide to the Colorado Mountains. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Business Week, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Orion. A former editor of the Aspen Daily News and Ski Magazine, Clifford currently serves as Executive Director of Mountainfilm in Telluride, Colorado.
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Hal Clifford questions almost every statement made by senior industry managers (backing many with snide comments), but treats pronouncements made by industry opponents - including some based on patently false assumptions - as gospel. In Clifford's world, ski resort managers are highly biased, but environmentalists, EPA staffers and disgruntled former ski resort and Forest Service employees are objective beyond question. This simply isn't the case. An honest assessment of the issues related to ski development would examine the motives and views of those opposed to mountain development as diligently as it does those who favor it.
Clifford assails, correctly, the piecemeal approach by which some ski areas obscured their growth plans during the permitting process. But he places all of the blame on resort operators and totally ignores the no-growth movement's direct responsibility for the creation of that tactic: subversion and abuse of regulatory and public comment processes. These abuses, which result in a staggeringly expensive and indeterminate permitting process, are well documented; it's no wonder that resorts attempted to keep their public and financial exposure small. He also ignores the fact that a growing number of progressive resorts now conduct their planning and permitting processes openly and invite environmental groups to participate. An objective book would at least acknowledge these efforts and give fair assessment of the questionable tactics used by some industry opponents.
Instead, Downhill Slide assumes that resorts and related real estate developments are uniformly creeping environmental disasters overrunning the mountains (in fact, skiing's footprint on the land is tiny; a fraction of one percent of the public lands in the mountain states are impacted by ski development). Clifford especially despises the concept of the modern ski resort village, which can be viewed as a response to the environmentally irresponsible sprawl that occurred around the base of ski areas decades ago. The new villages concentrate visitors on a small footprint, leaving more open land. So why isn't this a good thing? In Clifford's view, it's because they're built for transient guests, rather than providing a year-round haven for ski bums and colorful oddballs, and because developers can make money building them.
Clifford is correct in noting that some resort communities have essentially become second-home vacation retreats so expensive that resort workers can't afford to live there. Clearly, the industry could be more diligent in providing housing for staff. But resorts already do better job housing low-income workers than do most non-ski communities. Nor is anyone is forced to work (or live) in one.
The book's biggest stretch is the suggestion that social ills such as racism, alcoholism and domestic abuse in some areas of the Rockies are the fault of (and, by extension, the responsibility of) the ski industry. The argument is fallacious - both post hoc ergo propter hoc and as a splendid example of affirming the consequent. Clifford even implies that ski resorts are responsible for the presence of illegal aliens (apparently, that responsibilty falls to Vail, not the INS)- but cites not one case in which a ski resort ever recruited or hired an illegal alien, even by oversight.
Finally, Downhill Slide advances the premise that three companies, which between them represent about 30 percent of the US market - have driven the sport into a death spiral making the sport accessible only to the super-rich. This is utter nonsense. 30 percent of market share, split three ways, can't possibly conrol an entire industry. Besides, skiing has always been an expensive sport, and relative to disposable income - especially considering the ticket deals out there currently - skiing is actually more affordable to more people today than it was 50 years ago. That the sport hasn't grown (Clifford repeatedly hammers on that point) has far less to do with price than it does with with demographics, weather conditions over the past decade, competing recreation options and inept marketing.
Stripped to its essence, Downhill Slide is a plea - backed by fallacies of logic, appeals to pity, false dilemmas and half-baked environmental and social concerns - for things to be the way they used to be. Clifford openly states that he misses ski town life of old. Fair enough. But humans cannot freeze themselves in one moment in time. Such a freeze is what Clifford desires - and advocates - in holding up a handful of niche resorts in unique market situations as the model for how ski resorts should be run. That many ski areas which once operated in similar ways have gone out of business isn't mentioned. Nor is the fact that skiers and snowboarders vote with their wallets. Most clearly prefer the experience provided by larger resorts.
Clifford's prescription would kill skiing, not save it. He's welcome to patronize the niche resorts - indeed, they'd no doubt love his business. But to suggest their model is the only acceptable approach to skiing is arrogant beyond belief. So is Downhill Slide.
I think Clifford has adequately struck a nerve, however, on his second theme: the homogenization of skiing. Many of us have stood on a slope in Vail, or Whistler, or Sun Valley and wondered where we are. I think Clifford is on to something about how this is the real reason that skier visits are flat and skiing is very different on the mountain than it is in the brochure.
Surely, his prescription would make the disease worse. But, the geniuses who manage skiing in America had better fix the problem of the disney-ification of skiing. Their stagnant markets show it's a problem, and their investors will demand it.
Clifford sketches the transformation of the ski industry from a quaint and healthy alternative to gambling and drinking in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to a monster industry in the 21st, still healthy but not so quaint, that gives drinking and gambling fierce competition for discretionary dollars in our nation's mountain towns.
As mining and logging was gradually phased out, the focus shifted to recreation, changing charming towns into mere appendages of mega-resorts whose reason for being is the hawking of overpriced real estate, overpriced equipment, overpriced food, overpriced lift tickets-- and in the summer overpriced greens fees and tickets to film and music festivals. In most cases the resorts' gouging rest upon a firm foundation of reasonably priced public land leases, usually involving the US Forest Service, an agency of the Dept of Agriculture.
This last detail presents a problem for Clifford and his publisher, Sierra Club Books, For as logging and mining revenues to the USDA decline, it is hesitant to raise too sharply the rents or regulations on its new, relatively clean tenants, the resort operators. When Clifford makes the case for saving elk or lynx habitat the Forest Service is no doubt sympathetic, but probably a lot more interested in saving its own budget, and all the jobs that it supports. And a ski run, while not ideal, is a much better place for wildlife to thrive than what's left after a mining company extracts ore.
In Colorado there is a pair of sites, both mentioned in DOWNHILL SLIDE: Copper Mtn. Ski Area, and just 5 miles up the road, the mothballed Climax Molybdenum Mine. Copper Mtn has cut down some trees for ski runs and probably uses too much water for snowmaking and doesn't build housing in its "village" for non-rich people--but these are all things that can be fixed. At Climax what is left is a gray, treeless wasteland of slag heaps and tailing ponds. Half a mountain has been eaten away and the leftover sludge sluiced onto a vast flat area resembling a parking lot, into which you could fit dozens of parking lots as big as the one at Copper. Clifford spends many pages criticizing Copper and its owner, Intrawest Corp, but cites Climax only in a lone paragraph as a company which paid a good wage to its employees.
It seems to me that authors and publishers of perceptive and thoughtful books such as this one ought to propose real solutions to problems they elucidate. For example, why not build low cost employee housing for Copper Mtn on top of the wasteland at Climax? Anything, but anything they built, even Bauhaus, would be an improvement over what is there now. Looking at a map, one sees that a high speed quad could be run about 3 miles from this proposed employee housing to the top of Copper Mtn, thus cutting down on the commuter traffic from Leadville. The illegal workers discussed in Chapter 9 could realize the all-too-often elusive American Dream of skiing to work.
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