Blinded by the glare of profit

A chilling exposé of the ski resort industry

At the heart of "Downhill Slide" is a basic premise that should ring true to anyone who's visited Vail, Keystone, or Whistler Mountain in the last decade: Ski resorts have very little to do with skiing.

The money is in the condominiums, restaurants, and shops that sprawl at the base of the slopes. Consequently, that's where ski-company executives focus their attention, creating highly orchestrated "experiences." In the process, Hal Clifford argues in this passionate polemic, their companies are destroying the ski towns, the environment, and skiing itself.

Clifford's is an old-fashioned world, with clear villains and heroes. The villains are the "Big Three": Intrawest, Vail Resorts, and American Skiing, all publicly traded companies that together sell 24 percent of lift tickets in the US. In their quest for profits, Clifford contends, they've ignored the needs of their workers (most of whom have been priced out of the communities they work in), destroyed the health of the public land they depend on, and manipulated ever more people into buying the fantasy lifestyle they sell.

The heroes, then, are the few people who have dared challenge conventional ski-industry wisdom: Aron Brill and Jen Ader, for instance, who recently started a ski area in tiny Silverton, Colo. Their one-lift, no-development operation will be affordable and focused only on delivering great skiing. Or the residents of Mad River Valley, in Vermont, who joined together in a successful battle to keep the American Skiing Company from developing the base of its Sugarbush ski area.

Clifford shines his spotlight broadly. The Forest Service, the "village" developers, and the wealthy baby boomers who want both comfort and escapism all come under its glare. He may see few gray areas in the David vs. Goliath war he describes, but his book is well-researched and convincing. Many of the anecdotes he fleshes out will leave readers flabbergasted at the backscratching and consumer manipulation that is fundamental to the ski industry.

In one scene, Clifford describes a sales video for condos in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., that compares Intrawest to John Muir and Ansel Adams, two great conservationists. "John Muir's 19th-century writings can still help guide the development of a 21st-century resort," he quotes the film as saying. "I wonder what Muir, an ascetic who hiked for days with no more to eat than tea, bread, and cheese, would have to say about marble kitchen counters, wood- patterned concrete siding, and a $30,000 prestocked wine closet," he adds.

Then there's the story of the Canada lynx. Some of the last good habitat for the threatened species lay in the dense forests near Vail. When Vail announced plans to double its permitted area, the lynx stood in the way. A six-month conference with US Fish & Wildlife Service biologists produced a clear conclusion: The lynx south of Interstate 70 was ecologically distinct, and developing the proposed areas would cut off the migration necessary to keep the population viable. Then, at the last minute, Washington political appointees stepped in to declare the southern lynx unimportant. Vail got the go-ahead to develop.

Clifford couches his hard-edged exposé in an aching nostalgia for the "golden age" of skiing, when it was still based on the Norwegian ideal of Idraet, a principle that involved strength, toughness, and moral development. Back then, he says, "skiers could pack up their Econoline van or Volkswagen microbus and drive to the mountains.... What mattered was skiing, and the social hierarchy that developed each season was predicated on their abilities on the mountain." This is a far cry from the social divide that exists around today's ski towns, where one newspaper ad declared: "This May Be Your Last Chance to Build an 18,729 sq ft Home in Aspen."

Clifford offers fewer solutions than criticisms. In his ideal world, skiing would liberate itself from publicly traded companies, and communities would take control. More ski areas would be nonprofit cooperatives like Idaho's Bogus Basin or Montana's Bridger Bowl. People would live in ski towns rather than simply own second homes there. "It will be neither simple nor easy for communities to gain control over ski resorts," he admits, "but opportunities to do so will arise." How that would happen is unclear, though, and his alternatives seem a distant dream.

"Downhill Slide" is an important book for anyone who cares about skiing or the mountains. Unfortunately, it's unlikely to reach anyone who doesn't already agree with Clifford's earnest conclusions.

Amanda Paulson is on the Monitor staff.

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