Development and consolidation are putting pressure on local, family friendly ski resorts
By: R. Scott Rappold, Guest Commentary, The Denver Post
December 7, 2018, 6:00 am
I’d like to tell you about the place I ski, the place I consider to be among the best resorts in Colorado for those who love deep powder.
Wolf Creek Ski Area is remote, surrounded by Rio Grande National Forest in southern Colorado. Traffic is nonexistent and you can park practically right next to the lifts — no long bus rides from the free parking lot. They’re all free. Lift tickets are affordable, $72 for adults as of this writing, down to $50 on the many local appreciation days, when everyone’s a local. You can feed the family and not have to take out a second mortgage or just bring lunch to the picnic lodge. Lift lines are rare outside of the holidays and spring break.
As for the snow, it’s legendary, an average of 430 inches a winter, and since the mountain is rarely crowded powder hounds can find fresh tracks days after a storm. And skiers can enjoy it with pristine views of an undeveloped landscape; no ski-in, ski-out condos or boutiques here. It’s how I imagine skiing was before the age of the mega-resort.
But how long will the ski area I love have the same feel?
Texas billionaire B.J. “Red” McCombs has been trying for three decades to build the Village at Wolf Creek, a massive housing development that could someday host several thousand people and fundamentally alter the environment atop Wolf Creek Pass, where the ski area is the only development for miles in any direction.
Despite a major legal defeat last year, this project is closer than ever to becoming a reality.
It’s just one example of the pressure felt by mom-and-pop ski areas across the industry, an industry where small ski areas are increasingly being bought up by major corporations that collect resorts like so many chips in a poker game. Crested Butte Mountain Resort was the latest to fall this year, when longtime owners the Mueller family sold it to Vail Resorts.
It begs the question: In skiing, is bigger always better?
Davey Pitcher’s family has owned Wolf Creek since the 1980s, and he’s a rare breed of ski area owner: He’s on the mountain all the time, talking to customers, blasting for avalanches with a snorkel on or just enjoying the snow with the family dog.
He’s also found himself caught in the middle of a decades-long legal battle between environmentalists, who oppose any development, and the would-be builders. The land where the village would be built is private, but the developers need access to U.S. Highway 160 through Rio Grande National Forest. That has been the point of contention, and in 2017 a federal judge shot down a U.S. Forest Service proposal to grant access on the grounds the agency had not adequately studied the environmental impact.
But this summer, the Forest Service proposed to use a different law to grant highway access. According to The Durango Herald, the agency received 900 public comments, but since officials only accepted comments from people who had done so during the 2011-12 environmental impact statement process, only 54 of those comments were accepted.
Emotions remain high — the Village at Wolf Creek is not popular among most local skiers, who treasure the quiet vibe, lack of crowds and untouched powder — but Pitcher urges people to remain calm. He also laments that the two sides could not come to a compromise that would have moved the development to a less sensitive area without wetlands.
“Everybody’s been speculating about this village for 35 years and they have yet to break ground on it,” he said. “As they break ground, the growth will hopefully be organic. The test of reasonableness will be met by the fact it’s a high mountain environment in a rural area.”
The ski area has no plans for major developments to accommodate an influx of skiers. While some estimates put the number of people in the Village as high has 8,000, he calls such figures “premature.” In fact, while the two sides slug it out, Pitcher remains focused on his job of running a ski area.
“Where people stay now or in the future is really to be determined by people who are in the lodging business and Wolf Creek is strictly focused on the mountain,” he said. “Wolf Creek has changed over the years. If there’s additional development down there in the private land, we’re going to stay our course and try to provide the best quality skiing experience we can and stay focused on the skiing and that’s all I can do.”
As ski areas grow they also become more expensive to visit. The free parking lots move farther and farther away from the lifts or disappear completely. Instead of walking from your car to the lift, you’re maybe riding a bus to a gondola to a chairlift, requiring a very early wake-up call indeed if you’re looking for first tracks.
More skiing terrain is opened but more chairlifts mean more people and more people means the snow gets tracked out quicker and the lift lines get longer.
And as for lift tickets? The largest resorts can charge as much as $200 in peak season. Of course, most season passes these days reciprocate with other mountains, so skiers can visit more mountains. But so can all their thousands of new friends.
More, more, more.
Sometimes beloved traditions can be lost, such as when the Eskimo Ski Club, which taught kids to ski for 80 years at Winter Park, disbanded this summer because the resort needed its headquarters for employee space.
And it can become too much for a ski area, like at Crested Butte. Of the price Vail Resorts paid for the resort, $155 million was to pay off debt the ski area had accumulated during the recession.
Don’t get me wrong. I have had some amazing days at large resorts like Vail, Copper Mountain and Winter Park, mountain playgrounds larger than my entire town. You can get so far from the parking lot up there you feel like you’re in a Warren Miller film shot in the backcountry.
But there’s something to be said about skiing a smaller hill, where you don’t have to worry about losing your friends or kids among the four base villages and 30 lifts. Your run may be 1,500 vertical feet instead of 3,000, but that just means you get more runs in. After all, “epic skiing” can come in small packages, as well as large, as long as the snow is good.
For his part, Wolf Creek’s Pitcher doesn’t worry too much about consolidation as a threat to his mom-and-pop resort. They’ve even resisted joining a multi-mountain pass collective, a rare holdout these days.
“It’s a closely held family operation and my wife and I are actively running it. We enjoy the challenges and being out on the mountain seeing people learn how to ski. There’s still an awful lot of small ski areas in this country.”
R. Scott Rappold is a freelance journalist who has been writing about the outdoors and environment for 15 years, including 10 at The (Colorado Springs) Gazette. He lives in Colorado’s beautiful San Luis Valley. His opinions are his own.
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