Forget widgets, we sell wilderness

  • Cartoon of Vail Resorts Ski Domain - Rob Pudim/Vai

    eaver Creek Times
 

Italian ski racer Alberto Tomba signed a megabucks deal last winter with Vail Associates, the company that operates the Vail ski area. Tomba has a reputation best understood in the United States when compared to Michael Jordan and Madonna. Both admired and scorned, he's never ignored - exactly the person that Vail Associates wanted to tell European skiers about Vail.

He'll tell them that Vail usually has better snow than the resorts of the Alps, as well as superior grooming. Neither claim is a stretch. He'll also tell them about how it's getting easier all the time to get to Vail, with flights from Munich and London and Paris directly to the East Coast, then one more flight to Eagle County Regional Airport, just down the road from Vail.

And if the Forest Service smiles on Vail Associates, Tomba will tell his fellow Europeans about the several new bowls at Vail Mountain, filled with frosted flakes - 1,000 additional acres of ski terrain that make Vail the largest ski resort in North America. This expansion at Vail is largely about selling to Europeans and, to a lesser extent, other foreign skiers. Although the number of visitors to Vail has been growing about 2 percent a year, the domestic skiing market is essentially flat. Because some 85 percent of the world's skiers live outside the United States, Vail sees easier markets to invade, especially in Europe.

What's at stake

If you buy the argument of groups like the Colorado Environmental Coalition and Ancient Forest Rescue, the area Vail plans to expand into is one of the last unmolested backcountry areas linking the Holy Cross and Eagles Nest wilderness areas. It is a refuge for wildlife and perhaps a mental retreat for those bothered by the increasing urbanization and development of the high country.

If you buy even part of that argument, the question becomes: Are we selling our wilderness to Europeans, and if so, is it all that much different than selling our old-growth timber, those massive trees of the Pacific Northwest, to the Japanese? The Japanese, with a land mass about the size of Montana and a population about half that of the United States, long ago outstripped their supply of resources.

Forecasters say that even now the forte of the United States in this global economy is creativity and entertainment. Skiing is nothing if not entertainment.

So we put new lifts into the home of critters, a place used by only the occasional human snowshoer, cross-country skier or snowmobiler. Granted, it's all within sight of Vail's signature Back Bowls, with logging roads just across the ridge, but this narrow sliver of land's old-growth forest may harbor the rare and elusive lynx and other mysteries.

It's just a nibble at the "wilderness." But it is through nibbles that hunger becomes extra weight, and extra weight becomes obesity. Among those German industrialists now arriving in Vail may be one who buys those wonderful ranches above Burns on the flanks of the Flat Tops.

Already, Germans in particular, and foreigners in general, are as familiar at our national parks and monuments as Americans. At Thanksgiving dinner in Bryce Canyon National Park, my English language was in the minority. The story is much the same at Grand Canyon and even lesser known monuments. Towns of a few hundred residents on the Colorado Plateau have signs in four languages. Vail and Aspen are just slightly less famous than our major national parks, and we're soon to become more famous yet, thanks to Alberto Tomba and the 2002 Winter Olympics in nearby - seen from a global perspective - Park City, Utah.

We don't sell widgets; we sell wilderness.

I'm strongly persuaded of the inevitability of this, even as I'm already nostalgic about the wide-open spaces I have known. Wilderness is not static; I understand that. Others before me knew a different land and lamented the loss of "their" wilderness and open spaces, as others will after me.

Indeed, in recent years I have found myself in the ironic position of being both a publicist for this taking of the wilderness and a critic. I began skiing the 10th Mountain Division huts in 1985, and was the first to check into several of these backcountry ski huts, even as the carpenters were checking out. I gave them all the space in the newspaper where I worked that Vail's burgeoning real-estate industry would subsidize, which was considerable. Then, as plans expanded into some favored backcountry areas north of Vail, I began probing, questioning just how much like Switzerland we wanted to be.

All that stands between Vail and the Swiss tourism experience are some high-tech, fast-moving trains.

We're working on the trains.

As Reg Saner points out in his delightful Four-Cornered Falcon, wilderness becomes defined only by its absence. The last bear in Switzerland was killed 92 years ago, and the national animal, the steinbok, had to be reintroduced. Maybe Congress, with its passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, saved us from duplicating the Swiss experience. Except for avalanches, Switzerland is a very safe place. Colorado feels safer all the time.

Allen Best is managing editor of the Vail/Beaver Creek Times in Avon, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!