Going down

Every so often, a media burp points out a capitalistic idiosyncrasy, such as the well-known but quickly forgotten fact that movie theaters rarely profit from ticket sales. Rather, the feature-film presentation provides an excuse to hawk inflated concessions.

Such a seemingly innocuous quirk lies at the heart of Hal Clifford’s Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment. Clifford, a Colorado-based journalist, contends that skiing has descended into a marketing tool used to sell a sort of popcorn called real estate to bourgeois baby boomers.

Clifford laments the passing of the 1950s, when ski towns were self-sustaining Bohemias where folks could drop out of the mainstream and ensconce themselves in a bucolic utopia. The uniqueness of these towns, Clifford argues, has been trampled by a vacation-resort colonialism that brings urban problems such as traffic and sprawl to the mountain while pricing out all but the obscenely rich. In fact, Downhill Slide reads a lot like a high-altitude incarnation of Erik Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. By casting a wide net on the many tentacles of the alpine industrial complex, Clifford paints a broadly damning portrait not merely of big, bad business but also of the sophistry of American desire that enables it to flourish.

The author places blame for much of this at the doorstep of the three big skiing corporations: Intrawest Corporation, Vail Resorts and American Skiing Company, which collectively account for 25 percent of the lift tickets sold in the United States. Although the majority of ski resorts remain in independent hands, Clifford contends that the big three serve as agenda setters for the entire industry. Other chapters focus on how the big three and other large developers leverage cut-rate deals on public lands; the power the big three wield within state and local governments; and the compromised politics of the U.S. Forest Service.

Perhaps most disturbing is Clifford’s analysis of how real-estate inflation wreaks havoc upon the social fabric of ski towns. The staggering income inequality in Aspen and Vail make the use of the term “colonialism” more accurate than anachronistic. As Clifford notes, in 1995, 80 percent of the staff of Vail’s fire department could not afford to live there. He adds that local businesses usually seem to be staffed by workers living in tents or commuting as far as 70 miles each way.

Clifford is at his best when his reporting coincides with a skewering of baby boomer ideology: “The implicit message in the marketing of the modern ski lifestyle is that, although the buyer chose at a young age not to drop out and live an alternative life on the edge, but instead to stay on track with his or her nose to the grindstone—that despite this fact, with enough money, the buyer supposedly can go and purchase the alternative life he or she did not choose.”

Downhill Slide is not without its spills. Clifford is an unabashed authenticity junkie who fails to examine the ski towns of yore he so recklessly fetishizes. In addition, he seems forever shocked that corporations have no qualms with using environmentalist cant, loopholes in public policy, and natural resources to keep their investors happy.

Clifford exposes a fallacy of American life: like a forgotten neighborhood, ski towns quickly could become the victims of their own popularity. In such locales, opponents of development are often portrayed as selfish NIMBYs. How to argue that resisting development is less elitist than the consequences of perpetual growth is a political quagmire for more than just ski bums.