After the 2016 election, Eric Balken decided it was time to do more. A longtime professional skier at Alta, and current executive director of an environmental non-profit, he is now running for city council of South Salt Lake.
“I didn’t see it coming, but I definitely wasn’t surprised,” said POWDER Senior Photographer Adam Clark, whose photos of Balken often appear in these pages. “He’s super passionate about everything he does, and he saw this as an opportunity to make a difference in his community.”
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Balken, 30, attended the University of Utah, where he received a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and Geography. After graduating, he just wanted to ski as much as he could. He landed sponsorships with brands like Moment Skis, Flylow Outerwear, and Julbo Eyewear, among others.
We caught up with Balken to talk about what it is like growing up a skier, his transition into local politics, and the important role that skier’s hold in their communities.
I grew up in Salt Lake City, and I skied as a little kid, but I didn't really get into it until high school. Since then, I've built my life around it. I became a ski bum, and when I graduated college I really made a push to ski harder and get sponsored.
I wouldn't call it a career, but I have been able to pick up some support from good companies and they've continued to support me and push me in my skiing. I've continued to do it for the last five or six years, and I plan to keep skiing and pushing myself for as long as I can. It's kind of a classic Salt Lake ski bum story. The mountains are so close here, sooner or later you're going to fall in love with skiing powder.
I don't make a living from skiing. My other job that a lot of people don't know about is that I'm the executive director of an environmental group, Glen Canyon Institute. We are a policy advocacy group working to restore the Colorado River. I've worked for them for about 10 years, and I became the executive director about two or three years ago.
I've worked for this great company for so long that I've built into my work schedule in the winter time I go to part-time with more flexible hours so that allows me to still ski a fair amount. With that flexibility, it's allowed me to have a legitimate career in the non-profit sector and still be able to ski a good amount. I mean, I don't get to ski as much as I want to, but I don't think anybody gets to ski as much as they really want to.
The politics thing kind of all started when I bought a house in South Salt Lake two and half years ago, and a good friend of mine suggested I run for city council. This last spring he pushed me again, saying "you should really do this, you'd make a great city councilperson." At the time, I didn't really know what the job entailed, but I was like "Ok, I'll do it, why not?" I looked at it as an opportunity to use my skill set with the non-profit world and public speaking, writing, community organizing. I just thought that was a perfect opportunity to use those skills and have an impact on my community.
I think like a lot of people, I felt compelled to be more politically engaged after the 2016 election. I thought, "I can do this, let's go."
In some ways, this transition from "skier" to "politician" hasn't been too crazy. To be clear, I plan on skiing a lot still. I don't see this as necessarily a transition away from skiing, instead I'm just taking on another challenge.
If I win, I will have to answer to the people of South Salt Lake, I'm always on call. That's similar to my other job too. I'm always on call, even when I'm traveling. When I'm on the hill, I always have to have my phone on, always be checking my email.
This has been a very big learning experience and has definitely involved pushing my comfort zone. Going around door to door is pretty much how you win a city council seat. You just have to canvas a whole bunch and walk around neighborhoods and talk to everybody. It's being able to talk to people for hours and hours and hours.
With my role at Glen Canyon Institute, I would say that I'm used to talking to people, but that's talking about the environment and the Colorado River. In this case I'm talking about neighborhood politics, which a lot of times just means listening to a lot of people. I think that's been one of the hardest things, because there's so much to listen to.
I think there is a greater challenge in thinking about what I'm doing with my life. I think all of us want to make some sort of impact. Skiing is just the funnest thing in the world and I could never give it up, so for now I'm just taking on this new project to make a bigger impact in the community. I know that there's going to be sacrifices.
I think people who ski, and who have the ability to ski, are pretty well off enough to give a little back to society, which we can all do in our own ways. I would also say that anyone who skis is definitely benefitting from our natural environment to some respect. Whether you're a resort skier or a backcountry skier, we're all the beneficiaries of protected areas and landscapes that haven't been totally destroyed.
We as skiers, in some respect, at least owe it to ourselves along with future generations to give back a little bit, whether it's fighting for your political beliefs or the environment. I think all skiers should get involved, whether on a local political scale or anything like that. I think we owe it to ourselves to do at least that.
It's kinda funny growing up being a ski bum because when you're in college, your whole life is just to go to school, working a bit to save up money, and to ski. That was my program and a lot of my friends', too. We're gonna work, we're gonna go to school, and we're gonna ski as much as possible and that's it. That's our whole world. Getting older, I'm 30 years old now, and I've seen a lot of people go from just being a ski bum and transitioning into professional careers. A lot of people have been able to pull it off, whether it's going back to school, growing their careers; I have a lot of friends that are engineers, video editors, photographers, and writers who have all been able to grow their careers at the same time as becoming amazing skiers.
You can definitely do both. I think that's what I'd want to say to young skiers that are coming up is that you don't have to put yourself in a corner of just being a ski bum. You can become an amazing skier and be an environmental activist or advocate, or a teacher or a marketer or artist. You can have multiple lives and have a really big impact on the world while skiing a whole bunch. You just have to get up early and stay up late.