PHOTO: Matt Power
As a young newspaper reporter in Jackson, Wyoming, in the late 1990s, I spent countless hours covering planning meetings where, aside from wanting to stick my pen in my eye due to the frustratingly slow pace of government, a familiar argument arose regarding efforts to maintain the valley's Western character in the face of immense development pressure. A typical voice sounded like this: "We don't want to become another Aspen."
On the surface, it made sense. Everyone was and is fully aware of Aspen's reputation for attracting the glitz and glamour. If you think of yourself as rough and rugged (real or perceived), Aspen is an easy target.
But after seeing the efforts by Aspen—resort and town—to differentiate itself from the crowd—in affordable housing, environmental ethics, climate change mitigation, and human rights awareness—I've since learned that comparing Jackson, or any other handful of resort towns, to Aspen, is unfair. Unfair, that is, to Aspen.
The resort made this abundantly clear back in January when president and CEO Mike Kaplan penned an open letter stating its opposition to the policies and demagoguery set forth by newly elected President Donald Trump. SFGate, the San Francisco news site, called the letter "unprecedented" in the resort industry for Kaplan’s willingness to step into the volatile world of politics. As the ski world lays its eyes on Aspen this weekend for the World Cup Finals, it's important to recognize and applaud the resort's efforts to be responsible global citizens.
As skiers, we've become accustomed to having our hearts damaged. The situation in Squaw Valley, where the community and resort have been split by a massive development proposal (though held its own successful World Cup event last weekend), is toxic. After Jackson Hole lost the Village Café, I had to make a conscious effort at not being jaded every time I went to the hill. Last year, the owners of Jay Peak, Vermont, were indicted for fraud. And then there's Vail Resorts, which tried to trademark the name Park City after obtaining ownership of the ski area through a simple, though devastating, clerical error by the previous owners.
These are just a few examples of how skiers have seen their world change in front of their eyes by corporations and developers who make decisions in boardrooms, not the ski hill. If you've skied your entire life, and if your home hill forms the basis of your identity and community, seeing it shun your interests hurts on a very personal level. It's like hearing a loved one say they don't love you anymore. Very ouch, baby.
So though Aspen isn't my home hill, it was with gratitude I read Kaplan's letter, the entirety of which you can find here. Titled "We're Still Here," Kaplan explains that while skiing is about escape and freedom, it would be irresponsible to pretend that certain policies don't have the potential to erode its foundation. We hear a lot about how POWDER should avoid the politics of climate change, but as Kaplan so eloquently demonstrates, we are all part of one planet. And in fact, he notes, much of skiing in North America owes its beginnings to members of the 10th Mountain Division, who fought for freedoms in World War II that allowed skiing as a form of expression—and ski resorts as fertile ground for art and ideas—to take root in the first place.
"These men had just returned from fighting fascism in Europe, one of humanity's greatest struggles for its own soul, and the next thing they thought to do was help build a ski area," Kaplan writes. "That—and the fact that wounded veterans still come here to recuperate—is a powerful commentary on what skiing can do for a person's humanity and sense of place in this world. It also makes me wonder: Do we owe those 10th Mountain vets something?"
Yes, Kaplan argues, we do. As the Trump Administration fills its own putrid swamp with climate-change deniers, environmental degraders, education denouncers, human and gay rights obstructers, freedom of religion violators, and plain and simple serial liars, the ski community can and should stand up as responsible citizens.
You can say that Aspen is not perfect and that it illustrates the vast gulf of income inequality in America. You can point to how a day lift ticket costs more than $160, meaning a lot of low- and middle-income families will never ski there. And how traffic volume coming in and out of town by workers who can't afford to live in Aspen is very real. And there are tentative plans to develop the base of Lift 1A, putting a likely end to the ski bum paradise of the Skier's Chalet.
But in terms of its actions as a big ski resort attempting to do the right thing, on the hill and off, it stands as the leader.
"Granted, Aspen is not the most diverse melting pot in the nation, and so this all may sound a bit self-important and overwrought. But we take our values and our role as a corporate citizen seriously," Kaplan concludes. "That's why I'm choosing to weigh in publicly, to say that we will not stand down. Our business and our principles are at stake, and we remain resolute in our commitment to ensuring a stable climate and a tolerant civil society.
"We're still here."
If the rest of us want to be here, too, we should try to be a little more like Aspen.
Matt Hansen is the Editor-at-Large for POWDER.