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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of Nov 27 - Dec 3, 2002

Opinion Columns

The downhill slide 
of ski towns

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH

That change is a constant of life is axiomatic. Sometimes change is for the good and sometimes not, and often it is a matter of opinion or, rather, judgment, which it is. Often it is a bit of both, and almost always it is confusing. Drastic or exponential change makes it difficult for the people it impacts to understand or respond and effectively deal with it. The more a person or a community understands about their situation and the changes that impact them, the better off they are.

To say that the ski towns of America have undergone drastic, exponential change in the past two decades is to seriously understate the case. Those changes have impacted every aspect of ski town life: real estate prices, traffic congestion and patterns, wildlife survival, population demographics, quality of life, crime statistics, working conditions, politics, economics, environment, and, most important, that indefinable but vital aspect of every town¾the identity and very soul of the community which is an amalgam of all of them.

To understand change for what it is and what it is not is to have some tools for coping and, perhaps, making some other changes in response. A new book by Hal Clifford is a blueprint for the changes that have befallen the ski towns of America, and it is recommended reading for every citizen of every ski town, for every skier who visits ski towns, for every person interested in the effects of the corporate bottom line on the daily life of the common man and the larger environment. Actually, it should be required reading.

Clifford’s book is titled "Downhill Slide" with a sub-title of "Why the corporate ski industry is bad for skiing, ski towns, and the environment." It is properly described as "an impassioned exposé" of how America’s ski corporations "are gutting ski towns, the natural environment, and skiing itself in a largely futile search for short term profits." Most people who have spent their lives in ski towns know this at some level, but "Downhill Slide" is the first time that all the relevant history, the pertinent facts, the well researched documentation and such an informed insight has been gathered in one place so that the big picture can be seen by the little people. Clifford has done a masterful job of journalism, and the ski towns of America and everyone who loves skiing and the mountains should be (and, I believe, will be) grateful to him. For he not only describes the uninviting, destructive and inauthentic cultural landscape of corporate American skiing, he suggests a genuine alternative to the theme park culture and business of Ski Town USA. That alternative is nothing more radical or complicated than shifting control of local businesses away from absentee and usually corporate ownership to local control. It is as authentic and American as Mom, apple pie, the town hall meeting, self reliance and self determination.

"Downhill Slide" is full of lines like "One does not have to be a hard-core environmental activist to question the wisdom of letting corporations develop public land in order to service their debt and boost shareholders’ profits without materially advancing the public good." Clifford dispels any illusion the uninformed or the naïve may have that the U.S. Forest Service is able to protect publicly owned lands for the public good. He writes, "There are plenty of individuals in the forest Service who recognize their agency is falling down on the job and who wish things were different. But so long as the agency is obliged by Congress to find its funding in places beyond Capitol Hill, it is going to be compromised in its stewardship of America’s public lands. Those who pay the highest price for this co-opting reside in the communities, both natural and human, situated near ski resorts." The key phrase is "both natural and human."

It is evident and well documented, but not much publicized that Clifford is accurate when he writes, "The development and expansion of large ski resorts on public lands degrades the natural environment in ways that are as pervasive, far reaching, and difficult to remediate as those caused by excessive logging, grazing and mining. Around ski resorts, these consequences are effectively permanent."

He touches on the philosophical/theological schism in western consciousness about the proper use of land, particularly public land. He asks, with a touch of irony, "Is nature a warehouse or a temple? (Albeit perhaps a temple with a gym attached.)"

And Clifford does not leave unscathed the warehousers of Ski Town USA. "The conceit," he writes, "Is that money can get for you what you gave up. The implicit message in the marketing of the modern skiing lifestyle, and especially of the real estate associated with it, is that although the buyer chose at an early 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. Stated like that, such as assertion seems patently false."

Yes, it does. But there is nothing false about "Downhill Slide" or the premise behind it. Hal Clifford has performed an invaluable service for the ski towns of America. His book is a cautionary tale, and, more, what it describes can be viewed as a microcosm of the effects of publicly owned corporations on communities, their citizens, wildlife, and the environment throughout the world. "Downhill Slide" is a reminder of some of the consequences of ignoring John Muir’s insight of 1869: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

"Downhill Slide" is hitched to all our lives and is a great read.



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