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Downhill Slide, by Hal Clifford

Review by Allen Best

Ski industry – March 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment
by Hal Clifford
Published in 2002 by Sierra Club Books
ISBN 1-578-050-71-5

FROM TODAY’S PERSPECTIVE, the golden age of skiing and ski towns occurred in the 1960s, 1970s, and even the early 1980s. Ski areas grew robustly, cashing in on the panache of outdoor athleticism and pristine mountain intimacy. This was business without smokestacks, just good, clean fun.

Ski towns brimmed with young people. Experimentation abounded, as did licentiousness. I recall dinner one evening in Winter Park’s Swiss House in 1981 when a local man renowned for his skiing stunts idly hurled a Coors bottle against the fireplace mantle, splaying glass across carpets, tables, and empty chairs. Ski towns in that era were youth, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’roll.

By the mid-1980s, however, ski towns were already sprawling into lifestyle valleys. Fueled by a change in tax laws and by the stock market boom, real estate edged ahead of skiing as the dominant economic driver. Ski chalets were razed to make way for mansions. Immigrant laborers arrived to toil. The gaps between rich and poor widened. And ski areas were resorting to robbing one another of skiers. There was growth, but not necessarily on the slopes.

Finally, late in the 1990s, Wall Street got directly involved in skiing. The industry consolidated, led by three new publicly traded companies. These new companies brought new skill to the sport of making money. Slope-side real estate is the easiest. Meanwhile, down along the highways, corporate franchises are crowding the highways with big box stores, burger joints, and designer coffees.

In Downhill Slide, Hal Clifford dives into these changes and finds a bad guy, as identified in the book’s subtitle: Why the Corporate Ski Industry is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment.

Skiing, he says, “has been transformed into a come-hither amenity to sell real estate.” Agents of this change, he says, are the “Big Three,” i.e. Vail Resorts, Intrawest, and American Skiing. In Colorado, Vail Resorts has Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, and Keystone. Intrawest has Copper Mountain but also now operates Winter Park, and is also building base-area projects at Snowmass and Keystone. American Skiing has only Steamboat.

Clifford says modern ski resorts “are losing what it was that made them special in the first place, and so becoming more like the rest of America. Such a fate will ultimately undermine the appeal, the quality of life, and the economic success of these places.” He compares the hegemony of these corporate ski companies over mountain towns in the early 21st century to the power of railroads, cattle barons, and timber companies at other times.

Is this, he asks, the inevitable ordering of the world for ski towns?

Regardless of whether you accept this question or its premise, Clifford has done an often-wonderful job of journalism while analyzing ski industry economics and history. He argues that skiing started down the wrong road with Vail, which opened in 1962. At Vail, skiing was essentially an amenity to real estate development (or, if you wish, real estate was the financier of skiing). That idea, copied several years later at Snowmass, has since become the model for development by ski area operators, he says.

Clifford’s book is consistently well written and at times fascinating, such as when he explains how Intrawest has taken the “village” concept to a new level. Even the chocolate-maker at Copper Mountain works in a window positioned so he can be seen by pedestrians as they round the street corner, as specified by contract. Nothing is left to doubt. Disney, long feared in mountain towns, seems to have arrived wearing the name of Intrawest.

A newspaper editor in Aspen and more recently a free-lance writer based in Telluride, Clifford also examines the relationship between the U.S. Forest Service (which administers most lands used for downhill skiing in the West) and the ski industry. The Forest Service, he concludes, frequently kowtows to the industry and reneges on its responsibilities as an environmental watchdog.

IF CORPORATE SKIING has promoted this avarice, and if making bucks has trumped cherishing these wonderful landscapes, then what is his alternative? Clifford proposes that ski communities buy the ski area operations, if necessary condemning them, as was considered in Vail a decade ago. He envisions ski towns becoming places where artisans, writers, and other such lone-eagle entrepreneurs can do business, fashioning the ski hill as an amenity as they see fit.

This vision is an enticing one, and to a large extent it’s already happening. Arguably, the Aspen Skiing Co. is captive to its community without being owned by its community, and if tradition holds, Vail will also go in that direction in another 10 years. They often follow one another.

But in wagging his finger at corporate ski companies, I think Clifford gives them rather more blame than they deserve. For example, he would have us believe that all of the real estate projects proposed at ski areas are an attempt to keep up with the Big Three. That may be true of Lake County’s now dormant proposal for second-home development next to Ski Cooper, but it hardly explains Crested Butte’s land-development drive, which began in 1992, long before Wall Street got involved directly with Colorado skiing.

IN FACT, I think this second-home development and urbanization that annoys him is a more layered and interesting process. The ski towns of old were the seeds, fostering good libraries, restaurants and all the rest. Skiing remains an important amenity, but the impulse toward mountain living is much broader than slope-side condominiums.

Although Clifford acknowledges how transportation shapes the flow of money, I think his emphasis on transportation should have been stronger.

At times Clifford’s journalism comes up short. For example, in writing about Leadville as a bedroom for the Vail Valley, he casually describes Highway 24 as a scary commuter ride. Characteristically, he overstates the case. Drawing attention to the many crosses along the highway, he suggests they signify the deaths of commuting employees who work for an uncaring Vail Resorts. But I edited a Vail newspaper for years and can think of only one commuter killed, and I don’t think he was employed by Vail Resorts. Most fatalities have been of young people, early in the morning, in accidents involving alcohol.

Another example is his explanation of why lynx were transplanted into the San Juans in 1999 and 2000 — because, he contends, Vail did not want them inconveniently released near Vail. However, my sources tell a more common-sense story: There are few roads in the San Juans, where the lynx were released, unlike the area around Vail and Leadville, where the last native lynx in Colorado were seen. Cats get squashed on busy roads, ergo you release them in unroaded areas. While Vail does have strong, arguably unhealthy political influence, Clifford used the wrong story to make that allegation.

Also, while this book makes a polite nod at fairness, I detect favoritism for the old towns where the miners and ranchers did the dirty work of real estate development many decades ago. This is a little bit like old money looking down its nose at new money, and seems more sentimental than valid. After all, whether Vail Village or Aspen lies at the center, real estate development dominates.

At times I wished Downhill Slide had taken a more balanced approach. By focusing his guns on the big three, Clifford ignores the consequences of embracing development elsewhere. Aren’t less successful ski resorts like Telluride and Crested Butte — and even mountain towns like Conifer, Woodland Park, and Pagosa — at the mercy of the same drive to develop, build, and Disnify?

REAL ESTATE DEVELOPMENT reigns supreme in the Mountain West — and in sunny Arizona and California — with or without ski resorts. Big box stores, second homes that are nearly as big as airports, sprawl, and environmental degradation aren’t merely the work of three ski corporations. Clifford’s argument most fundamentally is with capitalism in the late 20th century and with the American concept of private property rights. But taking his book into those realms may have made for more formidable reading.

Despite these criticisms, I recommend the book. I think many parts of Clifford’s argument hold up, even if his central thesis buckles under the weight of its own self-righteousness. His real point, however, seems to be that ski valleys have become places of excess, whether it’s too many gimmicks on the ski mountain, too many burger joints along the highway, or too many mansions that always sit empty. If you can pardon his excesses in making that point, this is a good start to a long-overdue discussion about how the West wants to develop in its Era of Recreation and Leisure. To the extent that Downhill Slide helps us look to that future, and not nostalgically at some foggy notion of our own youth, it’s a valuable book.

— Allen Best