Press "Enter" to skip to content

What’s the difference between the oil and ski industries?

Essay by Ellen Miller

Recreation Industry – February 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Growth problems brought about by ski area expansion have been making the news again and the U.S. Forest Service keeps looking only at the small part of land that will have skiers on it, instead of trying to analyze what it all means.

That’s how places ranging from Jackson in Wyoming to the Eagle-Vail Valley in Colorado have become overblown theme parks, with high-priced condos taking up close-in real estate while the worker bees commute long distances from jammed trailers.

For reasons that still defy understanding, impacts brought about by ski growth remain off-limits to the stiff standards required of mining oil companies. Ski areas, the powers-that-be tell us, are different. And yes, they are.

Ski areas and most of the businesses around them pay lousy wages for most of the workers. Few provide health insurance, forcing many of the employees to turn to Medicaid.

Contrast that with the oil and oil shale boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Companies were granted special use permits for their activities, but only after long and exhausting examinations of what that activity would bring. Worker housing was required: so was beefed-up law enforcement. Miles of county roads were improved, and so were the sewer systems of small towns. Schools were built — just go look at Battlement Mesa or Rangely. Companies had to put megabucks into the oil shale impact fund and the money still flows out for civic projects.

But not around ski areas and all the accompanying problems they bring. Sure, skiing always has been looked on as an environmentally-friendly activity. Wildlife benefits from the ski runs, which make excellent summer pasture. But wildlife suffers from the valley growth, where condos and shopping centers and trailer parks destroy winter range.

This is not to make mining and oil companies look like princes of commerce. They were not and still are not. But they went through the hoops they had to in order to get their operations started. Forced to hire expensive consultants to study their projects’ impacts, the companies did so. Ordered to build apartments and schools and new streets, the companies did so. Not out of the goodness of their hearts, mind you, but as a necessary cost of doing business. The cost was assessed based on impacts at the regional level, not a site-specific basis.

It ought to be the same thing with skiing, and Colorado and other eastern states don’t have to re-invent the wheel to do it. This is not to say things were handled perfectly during the oil boom — they weren’t. But at least attempts were made. And with the luxury of 15 or so years to look back on what was done and what wasn’t done, what worked and what didn’t government officials of all types can learn from it.

They won’t solve the wage issue, but it might help solve a few of the problems faced by a couple working low-paid jobs, commuting 60 miles to work and trying to raise kids out of a trailer.

It was a terrible buzzword in those days. They called it “socioeconomic impact.” It’s time somebody brought the concept back.

Based in Grand Junction, Ellen Miller covers the Western Slope for The Denver Post.