As climate change ravages snowfall and an oligarchic ski industry chases after a shrinking demographic, radical projects imagine a world where all people can find catharsis in nature.
“In fully-automated luxury communism, nude skiing will be the vogue.” Hans told me. I often have casual conversations with strangers on chairlifts, but the old German intrigued me. It’s odd to cast alpine skiing as the sport to flourish in the afterglow of socialist revolution. Skiing is after all a pastime for rich white people: Over 60 percent of skiers in the United States earn a six-figure salary, and about 85 percent of skiers identify as non-Hispanic whites. Ski towns like Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Aspen, Colorado are fever dreams of the U.S. social hierarchy, where beautiful vacation homes lie empty much of the year while a shocking number of workers sleep in their cars. It’s expensive, and that’s the point. James Bond, the Davos conference, Playboy’s “snow bunnies”—a raft of imagery extolls the elite cosmopolitan allure of ski culture. We go to the mountains to escape the masses, and a luxury is only a luxury when few people have it.
And yet, my nudist friend inspired an idea. To rush through a snow-laden forest of spruce trees or watch fireflies glitter in the zephyrs of summer is a joy that should belong not only to aristocrats but to all people. As a ski instructor and raft guide, exposing soul-drained urbanites to the winter sunshine or misty mountains is the most rewarding feature of my work. The moment an elderly Hispanic lady or a young black man that I’m teaching discovers, “hey I can ski, too,” is deeply fulfilling. Ordinary people deserve nice things. “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too,” said feminist labor organizer Rose Schneiderman in 1912.
For the left, “cultivated leisure,” as Oscar Wilde writes in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, is “the aim of man.” The treasures of our land, water, and air are a common inheritance, and we must strive to democratize their enjoyment. Natural delights are part of the good life, after all. “The chance to find a pasqueflower,” wrote ecologist Aldo Leopold in Sand County Almanac, “is a right as inalienable as free speech.” So what does a green, egalitarian vision for skiing look like? And what stands in its way?
Why Can’t We All Enjoy the Slopes? It’s the Economy, Stupid.
One obstacle to Hans’ dream is our lack of time. Despite incredible labor-saving innovations, like the diesel engine, washing machine, and transistor, average leisure time in the U.S. has declined significantly since World War II. Capitalist-driven market competition tends to translate productivity gains into more output, even when people don’t need more stuff and workers themselves don’t need more hours. This “consumerist bias,” as sociologist Erik Olin Wright called it, reduces our freedom to enjoy the natural world. As the technological frontier advances, that sparkling future of shorter workweeks and longer holidays will remain ever a mirage on the sun-drenched horizon.
Second, our mountains and other beautiful places are being sold off. Beaches from Florida to California increasingly host no-trespass signs, surveillance cameras, fences, and armed guards. The Alps—once lauded as the “Playground of Europe”—are debased through consumerism and price inflation to the playground of the wealthy. This happens because rates of return on assets typically exceed the growth of wages and the economy as a whole. As economist Thorstein Veblen aptly put it, a rentier, “leisure class” emerges, whose habits are characterized by conspicuous consumption and waste and tied to the display of status. Their disposable income creates a market incentive for adventure outfitters to cater to the whims of the überrich. Swanky ski towns replace modest ones. Expensive restaurants replace cheap ones. The wealthy bid up housing costs. A rising tide lifts all prices, but only some boats. This “inflation inequality” makes a ski trip or beach vacation more expensive for the rest of us.
Finally, the snow is melting. Capitalist firms face competitive pressure to reduce costs, and externalizing those costs to the environment is a good strategy. Since the Industrial Revolution, 200 years of carbon and methane pollution has exacted its revenge. Average snowfall in the U.S. has receded by 20 to 60 percent over the past century. Since the 1980s, the ski season is 34 days shorter. Faced with such a collective action problem, markets deliver only a partial cure. Will climate change disrupt snowfall in the Sierra Nevada? This startup will spray clouds with silver iodide to induce an early birth of white gold. Will winter eventually become too warm even for that? Very well then, time to sell mountain biking as the Next Big Thing.
A Volkssport, But for Which Volk?
It wasn’t always this way. The folkloric roots of skiing were remarkably egalitarian and non-commercial. Long used as practical means of locomotion across arctic environments, skiing first emerged as a wide-spread leisure activity in mid-19th century Norway. Fashioned from slabs of wood with crude bindings, early skis were relatively cheap and simple. Ski lifts hadn’t been invented yet. After the 1814 Treaty of Kiel forced Swedish rule over the fjordlands, rural Norwegians took to local hills and forests to affirm their cultural heritage in the face of a foreign occupier. Rather than being a cosmopolitan luxury, Skiidrett (or “ski sport”) culture celebrated folk tradition, Norse gods like Ullr and Skadi, and romantic conceptions of nature and nation.
Scandinavian immigrants also brought skis to the United States, particularly the Midwest. According to economic historians Jeremy Atack and Fred Bateman, these mid-1800s homestead economies of the rural North approached a wealth distribution “more nearly equal than has been found almost anywhere.” The Nordic style (where the heel detaches from the ski) soon percolated into the mining camps of the Rockies and the Mittelgebirge region of central Europe—places like the Black Forest, Harz and Jura mountains. Hotels and equipment manufacturers did well but profits remained diffuse.
The masses eventually adopted skiing as the classic winter sport, in tandem—paradoxically—with its elevation to elite luxury. Historian Andrew Denning shows this process was intimately connected with the Alps’ “visceral allure.” Previously viewed as a wasteland, the Alps of the early 1800s began to host resorts like Davos, St. Moritz, and Chamonix, selling thermal waters and crisp air to a growing European elite. Swimming, nudism, and vegetarianism flourished, and the Sommerfrische (or “summer freshness”) retreat came to evoke the aristocratic Grand Tours of the 17th and 18th centuries. Railroads reduced week-long journeys to mere hours, and idyllic reports struck a chord with affluent British and Germans, who flocked to the mountains in both summer and winter. With its unique speed and versatility, the ski edged out the ice skate and toboggan in popularity as a winter sport. Steeper slopes prompted innovators like Mathias Zdarsky to set the heel in steel binding, splitting downhill “alpine” skiing from its cross-country, Nordic roots. Celebrity-athlete Fridtjof Nansen’s 1888 traverse across Greenland created a splash in the budding mass media. To ski was sexy, adventurous, and Edenic—a venture into the wild yet also fashionably modern.
The skiparadie, as it came to be called, always relied on a certain conceit about the human place in nature and society. In the “infinitude of the snowfield,” claimed Bavarian skier Eugen Oertel in 1909, one could escape society and “cast off the shackles of our civilized life,” fulfilling the Nietzschean call to “become who you are.” In tandem, the Long Depression of 1873 to 1896 marked a time of profound social upheaval in Europe. Taylorist production—with its emphasis on scientific management and economies of scale—destroyed guilds and family businesses. People crowded into cities, which came to represent filth and disease. Mass politics highlighted class, ethnic, and gender conflicts.
To cope with the modern condition, new philosophies emerged. Max Weber plotted the processes of disenchantment, Gustav Le Bon explained the herd mentality, while Sigmund Freud charted the raw interplay of the id, ego, and superego. Skiers, says Denning, had their own response to modernity: seek refuge in nature and escape society’s decadence. In the words of Goethe, “All theory is gray, but the golden tree of life springs evergreen.” Informed by the Romantic aesthetics, skiers saw the mountain as sublime, teeming with austere beauty and terror beyond ephemeral human institutions.
This escapist “flight from history,” as environmental historian William Cronon described it, conveniently ignored the scale to which skiers modified the landscape for human use. Those early roads, trains, and hotels—to say nothing of today’s dynamite, snow cannons, and ski lifts—render the sublimity of an untouched Earth somewhat of a farce. The enjoyment of a “pristine” landscape also heavily depended on pricing out the crowds. In 1955 for instance, one German ski magazine estimated that equipment and clothing cost on average 327 Deutsche Marks (about $675 in 2015). At more than 50 percent of per-capita monthly income for West Germany in the early 1950s, that put skiing out of reach for the working class, who had little time for such a transparently bourgeois exercise.
But as ski culture reached a critical mass among leisured urbanites, these fantasies found an ally in the investor class, film industry, and sports media. Olympian Jean-Claude Killy—like Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White today—received lucrative endorsements from brands like Chevy, Schwinn Bicycles, and Nivea. In a 1925 ad, Mercedes-Benz juxtaposed the skier with its sleek automobiles, while James Bond outwitted his villains on the slopes of Jungfrau for the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Movies like the 1931 White Ecstasy dazzled audiences with the death-defying aplomb of ski acrobats “drunk with the wine of speed,” as the British mountaineer Arnold Lunn once described.
Ski industry grew and consolidated, helped along by Alpine states eager to develop rural backwaters. Fiat magnate Giovanni Agnelli pushed the Italian fascist regime to create the first purpose-built ski village of Sestriere in the 1930s, extending the autostrada and train lines to service urbanites from Milan and Turin. Benito Mussolini himself posed shirtless with ski poles, elevating winter leisure to the ideal balance of body culture and patriotic masculinity. (One wonders if Vladimir Putin took a page from Il Duce for his own topless calendar.) Postwar Vienna aggressively developed infrastructure in the Alps, spending almost 500 million schillings (about $170 million today) of Marshall Plan funds for hotel improvements and ski lifts. Purpose-built resorts in France and Sun Valley, Idaho quickly replicated the Italian model, placing every aspect of the ski experience—hotels, transport, ski school—under centralized ownership of a state-backed, private developer. As it became more popular, the ski vacation increasingly relied on capital-intensive resorts and expensive equipment. As the editorial staff of Der Winter bitterly observed in 1967, “skiing has become a Volkssport, [and] the Volk has become affluent.”
It wasn’t all snooty consumer culture. As European economies recovered from World War II in the 1950s and 1960s, leisure time came to be recast not as a luxury, but as a fundamental human right. Countries with strong labor parties and social democratic traditions, such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, England, and France, legislated a minimum number of annual vacation days. In France, a group of modernist architects led by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand dreamed of connecting the masses to the Alps through a “national plan” with a “network of fast transportation.” The rugged landscape would become a “field of study and experimentation for urban planning and architecture” and be accessible to everyone through an iron-clad right of public use. The brand new Fifth Republic led by Charles de Gaulle evidently didn’t give a damn about this utopian vision, and in 1958 adopted a law that gave private investors free rein over a large swath of mountain commons—to be seized (and farmers dispossessed) for pennies. Nevertheless, Perriand’s egalitarian, accessible vision of a ski vacation left its mark in the visually arresting design of Les Arcs.
The Rise of Ski Inc.
Few and far between, these socialist experiments in skiing have been commodified or dwarfed by the rise of monopolies such as Vail Resorts, Inc. and Alterra Mountain Co. The first publicly trades at about $12 billion and the second represents the private equity firm KSL Capital and the Henry Crown family, who jointly own the $5 billion enterprise. These companies eat resorts like pork-belly futures. In 2016, Vail bought Stowe in Vermont and Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia for a record $1.3 billion. Not to be outdone, Aspen Skiing Co.—which became Alterra —acquired six U.S. and Canadian resorts for $1.5 billion, including Steamboat Springs in Colorado, Quebec’s Mont Tremblant, and Stratton in Vermont. Then it acquired Mammoth Resorts’ four mountains in California and Deer Valley in Utah. Together, these two corporations control about 37 percent of U.S. national skier visits, their season passes cover 110 resorts worldwide, and their holdings flaunt pre-tax (or EBITDA) profit margins over 25 percent.
This success is due, in part, to climate change and an aging demographic. The Western snow season has shrunk 34 days since 1982. A heavier reliance on snowmaking pushed smaller operators into bankruptcy. Only players with deep pockets survived. Cloud drift, precipitation, and temperature are fickle things, but by consolidating, the industry can spread losses from one region across the others. Season passes, like Vail’s Epic Pass and Alterra’s Ikon, trade early commitment for a steep discount—another good hedge against Mother Nature. They also own the whole mountain. That $18 burger? Vail’s. Your rentals, ski school lesson, bus from the airport, hotel package, even that seemingly indie chocolate shop on Mainstreet—all go to the corporate Goliath. It’s like a casino where the house always wins.
At the same time, ski culture faces an inexorable demographic decline. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers vaulted skiing into its golden age. Their kids have not kept up; total skier days per a thousand people are declining by 2.2 percent annually. As the gray-haired have retired, Vail and Alterra— along with their predecessors—discovered you can sell a lot of luxury real estate to granddad. Like sex, nostalgia sells. Ski towns such as Aspen, Colorado and Jackson Hole, Wyoming— famous for their Bohemian charm—began to sport egregious post-Bauhaus condos. Resort developers set up fractional ownership and time-share strategies to sweeten the deal, luring white collar workers from San Francisco to New York to purchase vacation homes in the “New Ski Villages.” Landlords who used to rent to local tenants found Airbnb-style rentals more lucrative.
Some industry watchers, like Chris Diamond, think all this is awesome. His book Ski Inc. 2020 even called it a “North American Renaissance.” Who doesn’t benefit from a cheap season pass, huge capital investments, and grandpa’s condo? Everyone—except low-wage seasonal workers, novice skiers, wildlife, and local culture. The Epic and Ikon passes, for instance, are a great deal if you’re a powder hound who shreds more than 20 days a year and can pay $1,000 up front. It’s also a great deal if you’re a company shareholder. By relieving competitive pressure off day lift tickets, Vail, Alterra, and other vertically-integrated groups can raise day ticket prices 4.5 times the rate of inflation. This hurts casual skiers and beginners. In Europe, where vestiges of a more diffuse ski economy remain, day tickets in the Alps are noticeably cheaper.
Defenders of the industry like Marc Peruzzi say big profits are good because companies can invest in lift infrastructure, open new terrain, or pay workers more. But a peak at Vail’s shareholder report shows this argument is a farce. Since 2018 Republican tax breaks, Vail has spent $1.2 billion of its profits buying back its own stock to reward investors. These buybacks don’t result in jobs or new ski terrain. In the past five years, Vail also spent a lot of its spare money on acquisitions, which really just means the owners change. Improvements, of course, might be necessary to gain market share, but with a shrinking base that means poaching skiers from other resorts. More terrain, new lifts, luxury homes—this “arms race” to attract skiers is self-defeating because no one actually needs more juniper, powder, and piñon tree glades to shred, especially not novices. As Hal Clifford writes in his excellent book Downhill Slide, the industry has built “magnificent temples to skiing, but new skiers by and large are not coming.” This high rate of capital expenditure pushes snow sports further into the realm of costly luxury.
Workers suffer most from Ski Inc.’s real estate spree. From Bend, Oregon to Asheville, North Carolina, adventure land faces a housing crisis of unprecedented scale. Stories of workers sleeping in their cars, tents, or just leaving are sadly common. Lake Tahoe housing officials report 76 percent of locals pay more than a third of income in rent. In Summit County, home to Breckenridge, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin, one investigation in 2016 found that the median rental lease hovered at $1,900 per month. Consequently, a ski-worker’s life is increasingly a commuter’s one, filled with the daily drudgery of traffic jams, road rage, and suburban sprawl. The Lake Tahoe study for instance found 59 percent of the workforce commute.
When local governments try to fix the failures of the free market, they often rub against the elitist attitude of the landed gentry. In 1998 Vail’s town council proposed new housing for 1,680 people. Wealthy homeowners, outraged at the notion mere ski bums might live next to their trophy homes, killed the plan. Meanwhile, the aristocrats’ Potemkin villages collect dust. In Mammoth for example, over half of homes are empty most of the year. In Winter Park, it tops 90 percent according to recent U.S. census data.
Ski towns are also sick of the Mickey Mouse kitsch. Like Holiday Inn and Carnival Cruise Lines, industrial-scale tourism companies seek to standardize the visitor experience. That sense of specialness, community, and austere beauty is commodified until it fades away, then replaced by a more fantastical, cartoonish version of what once was. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard once called this the hyperreal: “models of a real without origin or reality.” Jugglers, musicians, and storytellers entertain guests next to fires fed by natural gas trucked in from thousands of miles away. The resort universe is outfitted with log cabins, gold miners, escape rooms, wood trolls, and haunted forests— “a blow-up sex doll simulacrum of a life” described Hal Clifford. Is it a surprise, then, that Disney once flirted with designs for a ski resort in Sequoia National Park? After dark, all who remain in these New Ski Villages are tourists; the actual residents have driven home, 30 miles away. In all these ways, the modern ski town is a façade. Vail and Alterra may posture as home-grown in the High Rockies, but their souls live in a tax haven called Delaware.
An Ice Age, Thawing.
Frosty is melting. As it turns out, pumping millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere every day for 200 years is an eminently bad way to power the modern world. The consequences are immediately palpable. Since 1940, snow levels in Colorado have receded 20 to 60 percent, mirroring a general decline of snowfall in the United States over the past 100 years. Temperatures in the Alps rose 2°C over the 20th century. Since 1980, the average U.S. ski season has shortened 34 days, with similar reductions in Switzerland. Looking to the future, scientists in the EPA’s Climate Division published projections in 2017 showing a 50 percent reduction in ski season length across nearly all ski areas by 2050. A separate Climate Impact Lab model in 2018 forecasted that Truckee, California—the home of Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley, and Boreal—may likely witness annual below-freezing days plummet from 41 to 26 by mid-century. Park City and Deer Valley’s total may drop from 194 to 111. Because of elevation, some areas like the High Rockies may manage better, but our fine Champagne powder will probably melt into slushy Sierra cement more often.
The industry response to the climate crisis has been slow and lukewarm, with few resorts venturing beyond internal sustainability initiatives. Around 75 percent of American ski areas have adopted campaigns pledging more food waste dehydrators, gravity-powered snow cannons, and solar, hydroelectric, and wind power. But the results are often underwhelming. According to Vail’s 2020 progress report for example, net emissions have decreased by only 0.5 percent. Such P.R. stunts surely enhance the brand among outdoor-loving patrons, but their impact on the climate is likely miniscule.
When lofty ethics do clash with finances—say when resorts on arid public lands want to block the Forestry Service from regulating their water rights—the façade of sustainability crumbles. Over the last five years, pro-fossil fuel candidates like Mike Enzi (R-WY), Scott Tipton (R-CO), and Paul Cook (R-CA) have received tens of thousands of dollars from corporate executives like Jackson Hole president Jerry Blann, Vail CEO Rob Katz, and Mammoth CEO Rusty Gregory. The short time-horizon of the stock market encourages such structural myopia, as investors obsess over quarterly returns while the Earth hurtles toward a climatological point of no return.
To be fair, some places like Aspen are more vocal in the public arena. In 2006, Aspen filed an Amicus Brief to the Supreme Court, arguing the EPA has the right to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. In 2018 they targeted three swing-state Republicans with millions of postcards from guests, pushing them to #GiveAFlake about climate change. In 2019, employee uniforms began sporting the logo “Protect Our Winters”—a climate-action nonprofit, which aims to make outdoor recreationists climate voters. This push appears in large part due to the charisma of Auden Schendler, sustainability director for Aspen and author of Getting Green Done.
But even the crusading ambitions of one tree hugger in the corporate hierarchy will run up against structural limits. For one, market mechanisms place pressure on firms to manifest quick returns. A free-riding problem emerges. Anything too radical will offend the client base or board of directors, so proposals for a carbon tax or caps on emission-intensive activities like aviation are not on the agenda when the ski industry meets with Washington. Aspen, after all, receives a private jet every hour in the high season. Why threaten that?
Second, a corporate ski lobby faces what political scientist Mancur Olson called a problem of “diffuse benefits and concentrated costs.” The benefits of a healthy climate for snow enthusiasts are spread across time and diluted by the natural vicissitudes of weather. In contrast, the regulatory decisions on the fossil fuel industry are discreet, immediate, and existential. Polluters, then, will be vastly better organized to defend their interests. An epic showdown between Ski Inc. and Exxon Mobil & Co. is thus a fantasy—“a peashooter against a bazooka” admits Schendler.
Finally, Ski Inc.’s uneven public advocacy on climate change is vastly overshadowed by what may be charitably called “adaption.” Instead of funding a robust environmental lobby, the ski industry flirts with startups who promise artificial clouds, “glide carpets” and driverless snowcats. Some resorts in France and Spain have to cover up to 80 percent of their snowpack artificially, which only delays the inevitable. Last year, one desperate French resort in the Pyrenees even helicoptered in snow to save the season.
Stories like these neatly illustrate the paradox of how an industry that suffers from a slow-moving environmental catastrophe increasingly relies on the very carbon-intense production that started the whole mess. Many resorts are also trying to adapt ski lifts for summer mountain biking. Craft beer festivals, golf courses, rock climbing walls, ziplines, even roller coasters are increasingly touted as the way to “diversify revenue streams.” In other words, snow sports are a lost cause when it comes to the future of the industry. In these ways, corporate brands are at best unreliable vehicles to solve a collective action problem like climate change. It’s up to the ski bums to save skiing.
So what is the Ghost of Skiing Yet to Come? Two futures come to mind. In the bleak one, the planet warms, the snow season is cut in half, small ski areas closer to the masses (often in the lower altitude Midwest and New England) go bankrupt or get eaten by the Vail-Alterra duopoly. Those that remain are slushy, short-seasoned, and crowded. Meanwhile, the rich find evermore remote playgrounds to frolick, such as New Zealand, Alaska, Japan, and Iceland. Leisure time continues its decline. An oligarchic, Goliath-of-an-industry chases after a dwindling group of second home owners. The ski bum becomes an anachronism, the focus of sepia-toned docuseries. Mountain towns are gentrified of their charm and replaced by sterile Stepford villages. Alpine wetlands continue to be drained, rivers sucked dry, and wildlife habitat destroyed all to satisfy the adrenaline thrills of a shrinking cadre of enthusiasts.
In the other vision, skiers band together to create a climate justice advocacy group as powerful as the NRA. Unlike a meth-fed stock market, our time horizon includes grandchildren. We want healthy coral reefs for them to snorkel in. Powder days of historic proportions. Well-fed rivers to splash in and wade. The quiet grandeur of old-growth forests. Some mock this as tree-hugger schmaltz, but I see it as one of humankind’s greatest virtues. What could be less in our rational self-interest than fighting for a natural world we personally may never enjoy? Call it irrational, but it’s beautiful.
Skiers, river rats, scuba people, dirt-bags, surfer bros, biker girls, cavers, bird fanatics, anglers, hiking vagabonds—we are a powerful voter bloc and possess sizable consumer power. Given that the natural world is under relentless assault by a pollutive and commodifying force, the outdoor community must become thoroughly politicized. Groups like the Sunrise Movement, Protect Our Winters, and National Resource Defense Council are already mobilizing outdoor enthusiasts as a powerful voter bloc for Mother Nature. And because adventure meccas often lie in states with teetering conservative politics (Utah, Maine, West Virginia, and Alaska), our votes and consumer presence afford us an outsized voice.
There are also many ways to reverse the decline of ski culture and nurture alternatives to corporate consolidation. For one, we can push Congress to legislate more leisure time. “Every seven years, give people a year off,” Meagan Day artfully explains. Expand the mandatory number of annual vacation days. Establish federal holidays. Legislate paid leave for parents. The inequality that prices out the poor from nice places and leaves vacation homes empty most of the year can be addressed through taxes, taxes, and more taxes: on inheritance, global wealth, higher incomes, and absentee homeowners.
Empowered local governance can counter Disneyfied sprawl. Imagine deed-restrictions, affordable housing projects, eco-friendly building materials like straw bale, limits on commercial development, a capacity reservation system, and greener infrastructure for wildlife. The company town and resource colony are storied places in the American West, where boom-bust cycles followed the fortunes of rapacious timber, mining, and railroad giants. Ski towns are not condemned to the same fate. In fact, the advent of telework, accelerated by COVID-19, invites us to picture a world where the ski town depends less on a single behemoth for its livelihood. Newcomers wouldn’t just consume the place and jet back to the coast, but rather set down an anchor and stay a while.
Imagine also a world where ski resorts are placed under public, nonprofit trusts. It’s not hard; they already exist. Bridger Bowl outside Bozeman, Montana has operated as a non-profit since the mid-1950s. Ascutney Ski Area in Vermont operated from 1947 until 2010, when it shuttered its doors and sold its lifts under mounting debt. Local residents then voted to buy the resort under the umbrella of a small nonprofit with the help of Trust for Public Lands. In the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, a grassroots effort led the Antelope Butte Foundation to purchase an abandoned ski hill in 2010, with blessings from members of the Crow Nation. All together, about 22 ski areas out of the 470 operating in the United States are owned by non-profits.
Revenue that might otherwise go to shareholders, acquisitions, or executive salaries go straight back into financing improvements or making a ski trip affordable. To guard against the vicissitudes of weather, the network could negotiate a revenue-sharing agreement. Like our national parks, a universal season pass can provide a measure of financial security and affordable access. This model, of course, is markedly different than skiing now. It’s not consumerist. It’s not about the display of status. It will most likely rely on volunteers, federal grants, donations, and community support. But winter leisure’s salvation relies not on mega-hotels or heliskiing, but on the affordable, authentic, and humble.
Outdoor adventure is littered with these communal models. The non-profit Boy Scouts of America still own spectacular places, such as the Philmont Scout ranch in New Mexico, Sea Base in the Florida Keys, and the Northern Tier bases in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Canada. These are managed for their members. Recreational Equipment Inc. (or REI) is still technically a consumer co-operative and gives members a vote in the board of directors elections. Last summer I worked as a whitewater raft guide in the Smoky Mountains for the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which began in the 1970s as a worker-owned raft company.
Finally, consider what I tentatively call a Public Lands Fund. The idea is simple. The U.S. Treasury or a non-profit manages a pool of assets in the public name. Timber, oil, commercial fishing, ski companies, rafting outfitters—really any enterprise that directly profits off public resources is subject to the fund’s purview. Every adult is eligible for one, non-tradable share, which pays an annual dividend based on the yield of the underlying assets. Citizens have the right to vote on shareholder matters, either directly or through a proxy. The share cannot be sold and is retired upon death.
Far from a pie in the sky idea, it’s quite realistic and has several advantages. For one, a public fund effectively democratizes ownership of corporate profits but shelters the dynamic managerial structure from an ossified, Soviet-style bureaucracy. It reduces poverty. It subjects corporate leadership to a broader set of interests than profit maximization. It affirms the Public Trust Doctrine that the Earth’s bounties belong to the people, not distant shareholders. More than 120 ski resorts (accounting for 60 percent of all ski traffic) operate on national forests. If a private firm extracts value from a public asset, why shouldn’t the public benefit?
It’s also eminently achievable. Since the 1980s, the Alaska Permanent Fund has paid every Alaskan resident an annual dividend (usually ranging between $1,000 and $2,000) from the state’s oil royalties and a diversified portfolio of stocks, bonds, and real estate. The program is so popular, a full 64 percent of residents would rather establish a state income tax than reduce dividends to fill the state’s projected budget shortfall. In Norway, the birthplace of skiing, various state-owned wealth funds own almost one-third of all equity listed on the Oslo stock exchange and about 76 percent of the country’s non-home wealth. To put in perspective, that’s more than twice the share of national wealth owned by the People’s Republic of China.
Such examples prove that a democracy can cheaply administer a large portion of society’s wealth on behalf of the public without significant problems. A Public Lands Fund also doesn’t require a sweeping, revolutionary moment. Norway is liberal, but Alaska isn’t. Philanthropy, scrip tax, and other levies on the stock market can gradually dilute the power of private investors until the fund attains majority ownership.
When I ski by myself, I often ponder the geometric miracle of the snowflake or the alluring depth of a powder glade around the bend. But the visions of a green future—“real utopias” as Erik Olin Wright called them—also flash across my mind incessantly. To shred the gnar is a wild, exhilarating thing that everyone deserves. Our public lands provide us these awe-inspiring encounters, but their use has been perverted and commodified. A cloud of climate anxiety looms above. However imperfect, the models above provide inspiration for an emancipated vision of leisure—a world liberated from the tyranny of work, democratic, green, and chock-full of natural wonder and physicality. It’s a world where you can raft the Grand Canyon, sail the Acadian coastline, or ski the Alps.
On the chairlift, I recall Hans told me that our modern social order is like concrete. To sledgehammer the thing is brutish and unlikely to do much, but to sandpaper the edges is inadequate. For this reason, such ski dreams of his may seem like an exercise in pointless fantasy—fated “to bleach on the plains of the past under a hallucinated utopian sun,” wrote British Marxist E.P. Thompson. But in the boom-bust rhythms, small cracks in that concrete will form. There, radical projects can sink their roots. If neglected, the delicate sprouts will shrivel and die. If nourished, the stems will swell and in the fullness of time split the asphalt asunder. That is my hope. The choice, my friends, is ours.