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Know the West

Forget widgets, we sell wilderness


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.