On the right path or a ‘Downhill Slide’? | SierraSun.com
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On the right path or a ‘Downhill Slide’?

Paul Raymore
Sierra Sun

Hal Clifford’s book “Downhill Slide” should be required reading for anyone in Truckee who cares about skiing and the future of the ski industry.

Subtitled, “Why The Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad For Skiing, Ski Towns, And The Environment,” Clifford’s book has become even more apropos for local readers in the three years since it was first published. Many Tahoe resorts are just beginning to catch up to others nationwide in terms of the amenities being offered on and off the slopes.

A well-researched and passionately argued book, “Downhill Slide” is likely to leave very different impressions on people.

There will be those who look at the 1950s, 60s and 70s as the glory days of skiing, and who will agree with almost everything Clifford has to say about what’s wrong with the direction the ski industry is going today.

On the other hand there will be people who enjoy the creature comforts and services available at modern destination resorts, and who wouldn’t trade their shaped skis, detachable quads and perfectly groomed corduroy for anything.

Many others will likely fall somewhere in the middle.

Clifford, a life-long skier and former editor of the Aspen Daily News and Ski Magazine, has lived in or around ski towns since he was 18 years old.

Throughout the book, he argues that the consolidation of what used to be smaller, predominantly family-owned ski hills into large conglomerations operated by publicly-traded corporations has left skiers with higher ticket prices and a less authentic experience.

Clifford focuses his attention of the “Big Three” ski corporations in North America ” Vail Resorts Incorporated, Intrawest Corporation and American Skiing Company ” and the strategies they follow in developing and operating the ski resorts they own.

Of particular concern to Clifford is the use of public lands, primarily U.S. Forest Service lands, by ski resorts and the dramatic effect such use has on the value of privately-owned real estate nearby.

In a modern “destination resort,” such real estate is often developed to bring shopping, dining, and other forms of entertainment to the base of the ski runs, along with a good number of condos, timeshares and hotel rooms. Clifford feels that these “complimentary activities and services” not only degrade the skiing experience, but also change the nature of the ski towns that house them, often driving long-time residents out because of rising housing prices and the cost of living.

“From 1945 until about 1980, ski-resort towns were escapist enclaves, places where Americans slipped out of the mainstream culture,” Clifford writes. “They were hard to get to, and once you got there it was hard to earn a living. People who came found themselves deeply underemployed, a phenomenon encapsulated in the apocryphal story, heard in almost every ski resort, of someone with a doctorate who was washing dishes in a local resort.”

That reality is dying, Clifford argues, because the types of people who chose to live in such towns can no longer afford to when a ski resort becomes a destination, and when golf and shopping and entertainment become more important to the town’s economy than selling lift tickets.

In other chapters, the industry’s effects upon the environment, the fate of ski resort employees, and the lives of long-terms residents of ski towns are all examined with a critical eye.

This following series of stories is not an argument for or against Clifford’s view. Rather, by taking a look at what kind of development has been completed; is in the process of being built; and is proposed for the future at three local resorts, it is designed to bring a local perspective to some of the issues raised in the book.

The resorts included in this series ” Northstar-at-Tahoe, Sugar Bowl and Donner Ski Ranch ” were chosen because they are all located near Truckee and because they are widely spread along the spectrum of development and modernization.

In addition, all three resorts seem to have an understanding of how they fit into the greater Lake Tahoe ski marketplace.


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