Skicos bear brunt of New West blame |

Skicos bear brunt of New West blame

Don Rogers

He pastes responsibility for a loss of soul, sprawling real estate and host of social challenges on the large ski companies that went public in the mid-,late-1990s. That would be Vail Resorts, Intrawest and American Ski Company.

His book does a solid job of outlining the modern ski business, its pressures and consequences. That’s the value of “Downhil Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns and the Environment” – even if he misses, widely, in looking to the corporate entities as the locus of problems with deeper roots and representative of a deeper trend than can be traced to these outfits.

Second-home proliferation, surging population, environmental concerns and big changes in the character of communities have struck a wider range of the West than just the ski towns, and for far longer than the ski companies have issued stock. Clifford does not seem to recognize this in his book, though it is the seminal fact of the so-called “New West,” with and without ski resorts.

The writing suffers a little for what I’ll call Sierra Club literary effects – an intro bearing the image of a starving elk calf clattering across I-70, run out by those awful Beaver Creek trophy home developers. Never mind that elk in Colorado and in Eagle County exist at or near historic high numbers, and hunters still flock here from all over each fall. (It’s the deer that are in more trouble.) The forest in the Blue Sky Basin is lamented as a loss of “old-growth,” though it’s been logged over at least once in the past 100 years. And there’s no mention at all of arguably the biggest problem with our forests – we’ve let them grow too dense.

Now, these are picky misdemeanors with the truth as I understand it, and can see how they fit the tapestry of the story line. But they also are fictions, and they erode my trust in the writer when he delves into territory I don’t know. Too bad. The real environmental issues don’t require exaggeration for effect.

Reading one somewhat dispiriting account of meeting local wildlife officer Bill Heicher, I am sorry to say I laughed out loud. Clifford describes a weary, worn-out, possibly beaten man in Heicher, fighting the good fight against the corrosive effects on wildlife from the human population surging in the Eagle Valley. No, I don’t mock the issue. But I play basketball twice a week with Heicher, and believe me, this is no worn-out guy in any way, shape or form.

I also suspect Clifford’s observations about the “soul” leaving his special places have more to do with his own progression through the life cycle than anything the evil ski companies have done.

I, too, felt a kind of magic living in special places, at a special time in my life, meeting special people. Those towns just happened to be places with names like Honolulu, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Eureka, Quincy. And I just happened to be in my early to latish 20s at the time. The kids I see in Vail seem to have similar feelings about this place, even if some of their elders have begun to harrumph about life today and get all too misty-eyed about yesteryear. It’s natural, but it’s not necessarily the result of the skico selling shares now, or the size of the city.

These are the perhaps fatal flaws in an intriguing book I’m reading over again. The history looks sound, even down to the role in skiing played by a remote state park in northern California, Johnsville, where my wife worked for a few summers. The miners used ore buckets as lifts in the 1880s. Clifford credits another town in our neighborhood back then, La Porte, as the home of the first ski club in the United States.

He does a great job chronicling the rise of snowmaking, the scientific capitalism of the most sophisticated resort companies, the Forest Service aiming to play a bigger role in recreational opportunity, the competition for a static number of skier days, the ins and outs of pricing.

I’m not sure I quite buy the resort companies’ supposed weight with government, particularly in the story Clifford spins about Vail Resorts sidestepping endangered lynx politics to build Blue Sky Basin. But it’s worth contemplating.

Clifford writes with righteous outrage, a double-edged sword. He brings the power of passion into his viewpoint, lending strength and focus. But it also blemishes his points, dulls them, when readers – who invariably live in these places – find their BS meters ringing at some of the hyperbole and omissions.

I think that if Clifford doesn’t like developments in modernday ski towns, he ought to spend some quality time in upstate New York, rural Illinois or some other places in “normal” America that struggle with bigger problems than we do. Don’t like the town skico? Try the corporate giant that happens to be a steel mill reminding the city fathers it can move to Mexico at any time. Been there. Leverage has a little different meaning in towns like that. There’s at least a measure of symbiosis about the ski communities.

Still, the book is a great read, highly informative and offers a point of view that’s worthy of consideration if not necessarily agreement. Like I said, I’m reading it twice.

Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or at

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