Connecting the dots in 2015 among mountain towns of the West
by Allen Best
You probably think that your mountain town is special. It is, but what is happening there is often happening in other mountains towns and valleys, too. This is how I linked the dots of individual mountain towns during the last year, in my view the top 10 stories of 2015.
1) Cold? Eh, not so much
El Niño and snow have returned, but what a crummy winter it was for the Sierra Nevada. Washington state got plenty of rain, but it was too warm for snow. At Mt. Baker, the ski area closed temporarily on March 8—and never reopened.
Droughts come and go, but warmer temperatures overall seem to be here to stay. In Wyoming, the in-town ski area at Jackson, called Snow King Resort, has held an event called the World Championships Snowmobile Hill Climb for 40 years. Snow King is relatively small, but plenty steep, a challenge to the abilities and machines of sledders.
In 2015, the event in late March was cancelled, disappointing 300 competitors and 10,000 fans. Organizers were riding a chairlift up the mountain when they noticed a wet-snow avalanche that had ripped a ski run. It was too hot—and too risky.
Ten miles away, at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, ski area president Jerry Blann told Mountain Town News that many customers used to dismiss Jackson Hole as too cold in winter. That’s less and less of a problem, he said.
In British Columbia, Whistler Blackcomb last fall began making snow to augment Horstman Glacier. Whistler has been getting as much snow as ever, at least up high, but summer temperatures have been eroding Horstman’s snow and ice from decades past.
The weather can still get downright cold. In the Colorado mountain town of Gunnison, it got to 33 below New Year’s night of 2016. Deep freezes like that used to happen most winters; now they’re rare. The climate– it’s warming.
2) Gaga over ganja
It became legal in Colorado in January 2014 to sell marijuana to customers interested in the simple pleasure of getting high, but 2015 was the year when we started to get a glimpse of what this looks like in practice.
In practice, you can carry on your life with little notice. Even in those places, including Aspen and Telluride, that chose to treat cannabis little differently than liquor, legalization has not changed life greatly. Before, marijuana was illegal and abundant. Now, it’s legal and abundant. In Nederland, located west of Boulder, you can consume it in a bar-type setting.
Vail decided not to allow it, at least for now, although in practice, the THC-infused goods can be had on the edge of town, in an area of unincorporated Eagle County called the Green Mile. Other mountain towns have also kept their distance.
The most interesting story was in Breckenridge, where residents had a history of embracing legalization. However, as in Vail, residents decided cannabis shops were best out on the edge, away from T-shirt shops and disapproving eyes.
CNN has shown—repeatedly—a documentary about the money, the politics, and the culture of cannabis legalization, using the Breckenridge Cannabis Club as its focus. Clearly, the continent is interested in Colorado’s great social experiment. But questions remain. What, for example, is the effect on driving? Will cannabis continue to be like the craft brewery sector, the province of mostly small standalone companies. Or will it become, like tobacco and liquor, dominated by just a few monoliths. Any clear conclusions will be tentative for probably years to come.
3) Aspen hits 100 percent target
In 2005, Aspen adopted a climate change action plan called the Canary Initiative. In 2015, the city achieved a major milestone: 100 percent of electricity from renewables. Half comes from dams in the Rocky Mountains, another half from wind turbines on the Great Plains, and 1 percent from a landfill in Iowa.
Aspen started down this renewables road in the 1980s, with no real thoughts about global warming in mind. The city’s utility delivers electricity to about two-thirds of the town and none of the ski lifts. Aspen officials recognize that electricity is the first, easier step. Nexxt in carbon reduction: home heating and transportation.
Many other mountain towns in the West—including Utah’s Park City and Alberta’s Banff—have started walking the same path. Carbondale, a one-time coal-mining town down-valley from Aspen, will probably ask voters in April to approve a carbon tax on carbon-based electricity and natural gas used for home heating. And four mountain towns in the West – Aspen, Jackson Hole, Park City, and also Oregon’s Bend— were all among the 50 finalists in a national competition sponsored by Georgetown University to see who could most effectively chip away at energy consumption.
Many resort mountain towns took stands against greenhouse gas emissions, but the newspaper in Colorado’s Steamboat Springs was the man-bites-dog exception. Steamboat Today announced opposition to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, an effort to reduce coal-fired emissions. Ski Town USA, as Steamboat calls itself, is unusual in that it has three coal mines and four coal-fired generating stations nearby.
4) Investing millions in ski areas
Those who control purse strings voted with great confidence in the ski industry last year.
Park City, the streamlined name adopted by Vail Resorts after it began consolidating operations of Canyons Resort and Park City Mountain Resort, is enjoying $50 million in investment, including the new Quicksilver Gondola, which began operations just before Christmas. The gondola links the two ski areas, and their 7,300 combined acres make Park City the largest ski area in the United States. (At 8,100 acres, Whistler Blackcomb is still largest in North America).
In Wyoming, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort debuted a new Teton lift in December and plans a new gondola. The Kemmerer family, owners of the resort since 1992, have now invested $175 million, most of that in the last decade. Pointedly, the new lift serves primarily intermediate terrain—which, by the way, makes it more like Vail Mountain, Snowmass, and Deer Valley, magnets for intermediate and advanced-intermediate skiers.
In New Mexico, hedge fund manager Louis Bacon began doling out the eventual $300 million in investments he pledged in the Taos Ski Valley, which he purchased in 2013 from the family of ski area founder Ernie Blake. Gordon Briner, the chief executive, talks about major decline in the last 20 years: fewer beds, no major new lifts and, as a consequence, a roughly 35 percent decline in visitors. Bacon told the New York Times that his goal was to upgrade the infrastructure and experience, safeguard Taos’s unique character, and to earn a return on the investment. “Any two of these are doable, but accomplishing all three will be a challenge,” he said.
And in Colorado, Telluride Ski & Golf owner Chuck Horning announced he was hiring Bill Jensen to run the show. In the ski industry, Jensen has solid-gold credentials from California to Vail to Intrawest, which he led out of the darkened forest of oppressive debt. As a part owner of Telluride, can he now elevate Telluride?
One logical question might be why these folks are investing so much money in a product when skiing altogether has had only modest growth in numbers. The answer just might be that while participants in skiing and boarding have substantially lagged general population growth, those who do ski and snowboard mostly enjoy great affluence.
Then again comes the question about the changing climate. Sobering, to some, was a Stanford University researchers’ study of climate impacts on the value of stock in Vail Resorts Inc. The upshot? “The climate exposure discounted cash flow analysis generated an equity valuation of $83.85, 16.6 percent lower than tradition analysis valuation and 2.2 percent lower than the current equity price,” said Donna Bebb, a research fellow in the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.
5) Union efforts on ski hills
In ski towns, there’s always been a substantial gap between the income of the customers and those who do the work. In 2015, in an echo of the conversation across the United States, this gap seemed to widen.
In August, Vail Resorts chief executive Rob Katz announced a minimum wage increase to $10.50 for such positions as lift ops. Observers pointed out that Wal-Mart, not known for its largesse with employees, was already paying that much at its store in Colorado’s Summit County, where Vail has two of its ski areas.
On the hill, ski workers gained union representation at Telluride delivering wage increases and puts into writing such things a benefits for maternity and paternity leave, a five-day work week, and other benefits. The ski patrollers are represented by the Communications Workers of America. A unionization vote at Taos Ski Valley ended in a tie and hence the proposal failed.
And at Beaver Creek, ski instructors were talking about forming a union. After bumps in compensation from Vail Resorts, beginning teachers get $10.50 an hour while level 3 certified instructors get $18 an hour. Most get additional tips. For some, it’s a good living. But what grates instructors is the vast gulf between what their customers pay the ski company and what the instructors get.
In the hotels, restaurants, and other trenches of tourism and real estate development in mountain towns, there’s been scarcely any talk of unionization. Why? Possibly because employees who come and go frequently are hard to organize. Many are immigrants who are generally hesitant to get politically involved. And, in some cases, especially construction in boom times, it’s a pretty good living—if you can find a place to live.
6) Who’s to blame for tight housing?
People have been living in their cars and pitching tents in the forest almost as long as there have been ski areas. But the Great Recession produced a building lull that has been followed by a tightness in the housing market that, according to scattered reports, could well be tighter than anything ever experienced before.
Every mountain valley has its own story, but Crested Butte’s was as pained as any. Last spring, not long after the ski area closed, tents started popping up along Cement Creek, just outside town. In summer, it got worse. In Jackson Hole, rents escalated rapidly, outstripping income. There were yowls almost every week. Was there any resort mountain town without cries of housing anguish?
Housing woes are obviously a reflection that something is going right: plentiful jobs and attractive reasons to be in a place. Anybody want to go live in Detroit? But there’s a new player in the mix: Internet-based vacation rental systems such as Airbnb. Virtually all mountain towns have been struggling to come to terms with this new market force. Why rent a room to a lift-op or a construction laborer if you can triple your income by renting it out two or three weekends a month?
Aspen began building deed-restricted housing decades ago and didn’t stop during the Great Recession. Even so, housing is as tight as it’s ever been, says Su Lum, a resident who arrived there in the 1960s. “Good snow, good economy, everybody wanting to live here,” says Lum, a columnist in The Aspen Times.
Aspen is different in degree, but not kind, from many other ski towns of the West that cater to the world’s über-wealthy. “The 1% either live here in McMansions or come here to be fleeced,” says Lum. “We are prepared with our shears.”
7) Chinese in the Yellowstone region
Significant numbers of Chinese began arriving in Wyoming two years ago, and by one estimate their numbers swelled this past summer to 500,000. Most arrive on tour buses, stopping in Jackson to visit art galleries and other stores for a few hours before embarking on their buses to to admire the near-vertical profile of Grand Teton and then visit the geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles of Yellowstone National Park.
Chinese remain a rarity at winter resorts, though. Will that continue as Beijing prepares to host the 2022 Winter Olympics? In Whistler, long-time ski area designer Paul Mathews talks about the sheer numbers of Chinese.
In the meantime, Jackson Hole business leaders prepare to adapt for even more Chinese, including more Chinese arriving by car instead of buses. Chamber president Jeff Golightly says Jackson Hole has long been accustomed to international visitors, but those from Europe usually understand English and most have similar customs. Chinese, like Americans, rarely speak more than one language, and cultural differences are greater. “If you don’t offer them a discount, they feel insulted,” he says.
Now, business leaders in Jackson Hole are looking for Mandarin speakers, to help smooth these cultural and language barriers, and plan to post signs useful to Chinese. “We know this is the tip of the iceberg for us,” says Golightly.
8) Traffic jams in July
Summer has overtaken winter as the strongest horse pulling the economic wagon in many mountain towns. That was always the case with Jackson Hole and Banff, with their proximity to iconic national parks, but in recent years both Crested Butte and Telluride have reported larger sales tax revenues in summer than winter.
In Crested Butte, this caused distress as the gravel road through the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, touted as the world’s premiere high altitude research station, became an unceasing procession of high-clearance vehicles in July. In Jackson Hole, a 10-mile traffic jam one summer evening provoked many questions about parking lots in paradise.
Ski areas have typically been only a small part of the summer economy of mountain towns, but in the United States, increased authority allowing use of ski hills for such activities as ziplines and alpine coasters will probably move the needle. At Vail Mountain, the test case for this new authority, Vail Resorts hopes to someday erase summertime losses. In Jackson Hole, Snow King Resort hopes new summer amusements will offset traditional winter-time losses. Virtually every ski area operating on public land has been putting together plans.
9) Chattering in mountain towns
If it’s not quite the same thing as skiing or mountain biking or kayaking, many mountain towns have been adding a new sport: talking. The conferences go on and on and on.
Some conferences, such as at Sun Valley and Jackson Hole, have been fixtures for decades and draw reporters from the New York newspapers, if just to see who comes and goes.
Aspen, however, leads the chattering parade. Talk fests begin in early June and don’t end until September or beyond. There are interesting, prominent people, talking about everything from national security to global warming. Every day is another series of TED-like talks. One of the big events on the annual calendar is the Aspen Ideas Festival, which draws a lot of familiar names: Katie Couric, David Brooks, Gwen Ifill, Paul Ryan, and Lawrence Summers, among a few dozen others. U.S. senators sit in the audience.
Billionaires are plentiful. At one session in July, the speaker was Tom Steyer, a San Francisco hedge fund manager who had retired and now devotes himself to the cause of climate change (see the foregoing reference to Stanford). He spoke earnestly about the need for a carbon tax, to shift energy away from fossil fuels, and, was asked by his interviewer, an editor from Atlantic Magazine, what he would tell David Koch if Koch were in the front row. Less important than Steyer’s answer was the fact that Koch was indeed in the front row. He has a place in Aspen and, in fact, had a nearby building named in his honor. The two billionaires, at war over carbon and the source of many of the TV campaign ads you may have seen, nonetheless shook hands afterward and agreed to meet for coffee.
10) A river turned orange
The Animas River in southwest Colorado turned orange in August, putting Durango in the national spotlight, as well as the issue of the legacy of hard-rock mining in Colorado and other states. The contaminated water came from an abandoned gold mine near the Silverton Ski Area. But the stunning photos only told part of the story. In fact, the polluted water that occurred in three days occurs normally every 10 days or so.
Many ski towns are former mining towns, from Ketchum to Park City to Aspen, Telluride, and Crested Butte. Many have also dealt with the legacy of mining. Silverton has stewed for decades about what to do with its messes, but at year’s end town officials and those from San Juan County decided that they would examine the process that would draw U.S. government money to the table for a thorough cleanup, even if it did result in the word “Superfund” site being applied to the local jurisdictions. After all, there have been Superfund sites near Vail, Telluride, and other mountain towns that have managed to survive financially just fine.
But water was an issue in most mountain valleys. In the Sun Valley area, depleting aquifers were in the news, and Steamboat Springs continued to worry about whether the thirsty and rapidly growing cities of Colorado’s Front Range will someday try wrest flows of the Yampa River. And Vail, located cheek-and-jowl to the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, continues to debate how to reduce pollution to its gem, Gore Creek.
This was amended to correct an error about the ski patrol vote at Taos Ski Valley.