Opinion. . . . Summer 2000
A Skier's View:

Paving Paradise

by David Goodman


They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,
With a pink hotel, a boutique,
And a swinging hot spot.
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Joni Mitchell, singing about the ski industry
(well, not exactly, but she could have been)

Growth is good! Bigger is better!

These twin mantras of today's ski industry hardly seem controversial. After all, doesn't every hot-blooded, self-respecting yuppie swear by these principles?

There's just one problem: the explosion in ski area development may kill off our sport faster than El Niño ever could.

Consider, for example, what is happening right now in Vermont. Les Otten's American Skiing Company has proposed adding a new city to our humble state. This metropolis would lie at the base of Killington Mountain, one of the nine ski resorts that Otten owns. The twenty-year master plan unveiled by Killington in September calls for adding up to 1,530 hotel rooms, 2,015 hotel suites, 480 condos, 345 townhouses, 80 single family units, 230,000 sq. ft. of commercial space, and 118,000 sq. ft. for meetings or indoor sports. According to ASC vice president Carl Spangler, Killington will be able to accommodate about 30,000 people after just four years—a 50 percent increase over its current capacity.

Reality check: a fully occupied Killington would be the second largest city in Vermont. Only Burlington, population 39,000, would be bigger.

ASC calls this its "village approach" to development. I call it urban sprawl.

Does this construction boom have anything to do with skiing? Barely. Skiers sliding down a beautiful mountain are mere eye candy for the main event: making boatloads of money for downcountry investors.

For more proof, consider this: in just one month last spring, Intrawest Corp.—owner of Stratton Mountain—made $94 million selling slopeside real estate at four of its ski areas. Intrawest estimates that it has land enough to build 16,500 units, which they can eventually sell off for $2.4 billion.

One problem when Wall Street heads to the woods is that the ski experience is the first casualty. Suddenly, the beautiful glades that line a trail are clearcut to make way for million-dollar condos. That's just what happened at Stratton two years ago.

The ski area experience is rapidly becoming an extension of everyday life, rather than a respite from it. Crowds on liftlines feel a lot like the crush at Grand Central Station at rush hour. Is this growing the sport of skiing? Hardly: the number of visitors to ski areas in the Northeast peaked in the 1986-87 season, and has been flat or down ever since. Skiers are savvy travelers. If they want crowds and neon, they know they can save time and money by just staying home in downtown New York or Montreal.

Residents of mountain communities are right to object to this new wave of development. They are being asked to underwrite speculative real estate ventures with their pristine natural resources. They could easily be tempted by the promises of jobs and riches. But they've seen this before: during the real estate boom of the 1980s, ski resort owners went hog wild investing in slopeside vacation homes. Then the market tanked, taking down a number of ski areas with it.

Eighty-six years ago, a large ship set sail from England. Its owners were supremely confident that it was unsinkable. When the Titanic went down, two-thirds of its occupants perished. Are skiers and mountain town residents now being lured by resort conglomerates onto a modern day Titanic?

In skiing, only the vertical and the snow depth should be huge. The soul of our sport is just being in nature. Watching snowflakes drop quietly onto giant fir trees. Being outdoors with friends. Feeling like you are free, flying like a bird.

Yeah, I know: these are sappy, simple sentiments. And they are why we ski.

  Opinion. . . . Summer 2000
© David Goodman

David Goodman is a contributing editor for SKI, Powder, and Back Country magazines, and the recipient of numerous national ski writing awards. His passions range from politics to skiing, as the subjects of his latest books indicate: "Backcountry Skiing Adventures: Classic Ski and Snowboard Tours in Maine and New Hampshire" has recently been published by AMC Books, and "Fault Lines: Journeys Into the New South Africa" was published last February by University of California Press. He lives with his wife and daughter in Waterbury Center. This essay first appeared in an environmental newsletter over a year ago. The dates and details may change, the issue is as acute as ever...

Skiers parking, somewhere in the West
photo © Linde Waidhofer