originally appeared in The Denver Post:
Some years ago, I picked up a hitchhiker who assured me that Interstate 70 went through Vail because, after all, Vail always got what it wanted. On this point, he was wrong.
In 1956, when Congress authorized the original 40,000 miles of interstate highways, I-70 was to end at Denver. Highway engineers had thought that crossing the high humps of mountains west of Denver offered too few rewards and too great an expense. The ski industry in Colorado amounted to very little. Skiers at Arapahoe Basin, on Berthoud Pass and in Winter Park and a few others clogged Miner Street through Idaho Springs on Sunday nights. Aspen still needed a coat of paint. Vail did not exist.
Vail came along a few years later, and officially turned 50 this weekend. The Steamboat ski area also turns 50. They and other ski areas that sprouted during that same era of post-World War II exuberance have fundamentally redefined the economic, cultural and political geography of Colorado.
Looking ahead, you have to wonder whether the skiing infrastructure will someday be seen as an aberration, just as today we go to Leadville to gawk at the Victorian dandies and hillsides pulverized in the short-lived hurry to muck silver ore.
But first, some history about Vail. In March 1957, an early investor who had grown up on a ranch in the Eagle Valley, strapped on skins on his skis and led another potential investor up the mountain now called Vail. They had met in Aspen, and although he had trained just three valleys away at Camp Hale as a 10th Mountain Division soldier during World War II, he had never seen either the front sides or the backsides of Vail.
For years after the war, he had searched for the perfect ski area site. He even spent a summer as a night clerk at Silverton's Grand Imperial Hotel so he could spend his days scouting the slopes of the San Juan Mountains.
Reaching the top of Vail Mountain that day in 1957, he knew his search was ended. This was the place.
Only by coincidence, Congress that same month acceded to the lobbying of Colorado's congressional delegation, particularly their Senator, and agreed to extend I-70 west to Utah. Skiing was no part of the argument. The route was justified as a time-saver for travel between Denver and Los Angeles.
Vail's success was not instant. For awhile it wasn't clear the early investor could round up others. He and his team didn't get traction until they threw in building lots near the base of the ski area. Even if the ski area failed, at least they'd have a nice place for summer cabins. From its inception, skiing was an amenity to a real estate play at Vail.
Skiing was top-notch, however. Much of the credit goes to the mountain, a sprawling goddess of moderate slopes, exactly the sort that he realized would be needed for a mass-market ski area, with just enough steeps to be taken seriously by experts. Over the decades, the trail layout has grown and grown. A friend of his, three times has skied all the named runs, and the fastest round still took him 7 ½ days.
What that investor may not have realized in 1957 is that the mountain also has a knack for getting snow. Rarely does it get the power dumps of a Steamboat or a Wolf Creek. Just as rarely does it get completely left out.
Vail's success and I-70
Location matters in another way. It was just close enough to a major city, one both with skiers and with an airport. That was part of the investors original calculus. I-70 was completed between Denver and Vail in 1978, making Vail more accessible yet. He said once before he died in 2002 that Vail could have done fine without it. After all, he said, look at Aspen, which is at the end of a highway for seven months a year, when Independence Pass is closed. It has done just fine without an interstate.
Vail's success can also be attributed to development of the wide-bodied jet and a new form of real estate ownership called the condominium, which broadened the number of people who could afford vacation homes. It also reinforced resort loyalty. And then, in the 1970s, frequent Vail visitor Gerald Ford became president. His image comported well with Vail's sensibilities. People were socially moderate, and they believed in making money.
Ski areas in Colorado also surged on the swelling numbers of baby boomers as skiing transformed from an adventure of the elites to a sport of the masses. Business volume, as measured by skier days, routinely grew 10 percent for a couple of decades, until slowing in the early 1980s.
Colorado during this time became the center of the skiing world. In 1983, Vail surpassed California's Mammoth as the nation's busiest ski area, and that distinction has been trumped only twice since then, both times by Breckenridge. The company has consistently been a business innovator — not necessarily first but usually eager to embrace and expand new ideas, from high-speed lifts to low-cost ski passes.
While Vail wasn't around to create I-70, it soon began to flex its muscle to protect its interests while still a new ski area. Led by a 10th Mountain Division veteran who directed marketing for the company, the ski company in 1964 joined Breckenridge, the Climax Molybdenum Co., and others in opposing a plan to pierce the Gore Range Primitive Area (what later became the Eagles Nest Wilderness) with I-70. The highway and a tunnel under Red Buffalo Pass would have shortened the travel time between Silverthorne and Vail, and it was supported by truckers as well as chambers in Denver and Grand Junction. Vail and allied environmental groups won, and I-70 today uses the longer route over Vail Pass.
A few years later, that veteran lent his name in challenging a Forest Service timber sale that would have infringed future wilderness north of Vail. The lawsuit is still mentioned in natural resource textbooks.
In these and perhaps other ways, Vail represented the transformation of Colorado from commodities extraction to an economy based on recreation and leisure.
The new economic and legal landscape is best seen in the Homestake water diversions from creeks around Mount of the Holy Cross. Aurora and Colorado Springs found virtually no opposition to the first phase, which was completed in 1967. By the 1980s, aided by new state and federal laws, the Eagle County commissioners denied permits for the diversions. They had the means and political will to see the process through. Skiing did that.
Later, in the 1990s, Vail saw its self-image as a vanguard for progressive environmentalism under attack. The lightning rod was a giant expansion, later called Blue Sky Basin, which alone was larger than many individual ski areas. It was perceived as a giant grasp for public land for the privileged few with possible adverse consequences to wildlife, including the Canada lynx. Jarring to many in the ski industry, recreation had became what logging trucks and mines had been a generation before.
What's a "real town"?
As a former resident of Vail, I sometimes find my skin crawling when I hear dismissive comments that "Vail isn't a real town." That's absurd. What makes one town real and another not? Arvada, where I now live, was platted in 1870, incorporated in 1904, and has 108,000 residents. Yet it has no hospital and scarcely a motel. Aspen has wonderful Victorian bones, two lively daily newspapers, and a voting majority that lives in deed-restricted affordable housing. Every place is different.
Looking ahead, skiing has lagged general population growth in the United States. Vail, Aspen and other resorts have been sizing up Brazil and other developing nations as potential markets. In Vail, more attention has been paid to wellness and something called "medical tourism." It's not all about skiing.
It's likely to be even less about skiing during Vail's next 50 years. Snow will continue to fall, and possibly more than now. But so will rain, wrecking the snowpack, and winters will become shorter as the result of all the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we've been spewing into the atmosphere. Summers, a time of paradise in Vail and other mountain resorts, will become busier, as people from Denver flee the heat — much as they did last summer, but even more so.
But snow today provides 80 percent of the revenue at some lodges in Vail and 70 percent of the town's sales tax revenue. Whether hotter summers can deliver that same financial punch, well, that's one of the questions going forward. If I were a young person in Vail, I'd also be questioning the premise of an industry dependent upon cheap fossil fuels in a world likely to face carbon constraints.
In the 1880s in Leadville and Aspen, I'm sure it seemed like the grubbing for silver would continue for a long time. But by 1893, the downhill slide was on and it took Aspen more than 50 years to regain new vigor. Some of you will be there for Vail's next 50 years. Time will tell.
Thursday, January 3, 2013
originally appeared in The Denver Post: