Steve Spencer began working at Big Mountain Ski Resort in 1967. While he was the resort’s mountain manager, he would sometimes look across the Flathead and wonder “What if?”
“I always looked at Blacktail Mountain. It was right across the valley from us and it always had good snow,” Spencer says.
Spencer and several partners decided to make their designs on Blacktail Mountain a reality. They spent years dealing with investors, the U.S. Forest Service, and even the U.S. Air Force, which used the mountain for a defense early warning site. In December 1998, Blacktail Mountain Ski Area opened for business.
Spencer not only realized a personal ambition, he also bucked a national trend. The ski industry, with its massive start-up and operating costs and dependence on nature’s largesse, has experienced almost no growth in the last 20 years. While the number of skiers nationwide has held steady and in some places grown slightly, the number of individual ski areas has steadily declined.
The daunting odds and the strenuous start-up process have discouraged new resorts for many years. When Spencer and his partners received their permit to build a ski resort on public land, it was the first of its kind to be granted since 1978.
“It’s a risky business, there’s no getting around it,” Spencer says. “We just took it a step at a time and we’re cautiously optimistic about getting through it.”
The national trends are reflected in Montana, but with a twist that has helped small ski areas that are family or locally owned to survive. These businesses face a unique set of challenges.
Figures from the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) show a consistent decline in the number of ski areas in the United States in the last two decades. At the beginning of the 2000-01 season there were 490 areas, down from 569 in the 1990-1991 season. In the 1982-1983 season there were as many as 735.
“It’s just like you don’t see as many mom and pop shops around as you used to, you see more 7-Elevens,” says the NSAA’s Stacey Gardner. Gardner points to the tremendous expense of running a ski area and the increased expectations of skiers who have grown accustomed to high-quality facilities. Smaller ski areas must struggle to keep up with costly capital improvements.
“It’s been extremely challenging financially,” says Bruce Doering, owner of Marshall Mountain Ski Resort in Missoula. “What is going to help this ski area more than anything is replacing the T-bar on top with a new chairlift.”
Doering hopes the new chairlift will “set Marshall in the black quite a bit.”
Most of Montana’s ski resorts are owned by small groups of local investors. Owners say their niches are distinct from those of larger, destination resorts.
“We don’t even really try to get the destination crowd,” says Spencer. “We can’t afford to market in Los Angeles or San Diego or Dallas.”
Competition among Montana’s smaller ski areas remains friendly in large part because they serve different niches, owners say. Many of Montana’s ski businesses focus on one particular region or on skiers of a certain skill level. This makes it possible for numerous family and small group-owned areas to survive in the state, says Kevin Taylor, owner of the Great Divide Ski Area near Helena.
“It would be hard to survive in Colorado that way,” he says, because of that state’s large number of destination resorts.
Local competition is low on the list of worries for many owners.
“I’d say the Carmike 10 and cable TV are more of a competitor than the other ski areas,” says Doering.
While NSAA figures show the total number of skiers and snowboarders visiting resorts is on the rise nationwide, those numbers have been dropping in Montana. According to the Kottke Report, the NSAA’s major annual survey of ski resorts, between the 1999-2000 season and the 2000-01 season, the number of skier visits rose 9.8 percent nationwide but dropped 1.6 percent in Montana. Montana was among the quarter of U.S. states that experienced a drop, while the vast majority of states saw an increase in skier visits.
Of the six Montana ski areas that contributed their financial information to the Kottke Report, five saw a drop in visits last season. They all listed the same cause: poor snowfall.
“We’re just like farmers,” says Jami Phillips, chief financial officer of Winter Sports, Inc., owner of Big Mountain Ski and Summer Resort in Whitefish. “If we don’t have a snow, it makes or breaks you.”
Big Mountain, considered one of Montana’s premiere destination resorts, draws a good portion of its visitors from far-flung locations. In contrast to the smaller resorts with a more regional focus, Big Mountain’s parent, Winter Sports, Inc. is a publicly held corporation, with shares traded on the Nasdaq.
However, Winter Sports, Inc. is unlike many of its peer companies around the country. Winter Sports, Inc. is based locally in Whitefish and owns only Big Mountain, in contrast to the publicly held companies that own multiple resorts in several states. It is considered a “thinly traded” company, meaning the stock is traded in low volumes.
“The shareholders we do have hold Big Mountain very close to their hearts,” says Phillips. “They may pay closer attention to what we do, what the capital improvements are, and some of them frankly don’t care what the bottom line is.”
The fact that Montana does not attract as many destination skiers as a state like Colorado makes it easier for small companies to survive in the ski industry. Flourishing, however, is another matter. As a publicly held company, Winter Sports, Inc. must comply with U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission financial disclosure laws and announce their quarterly earnings. Figures for the quarter ending Sept. 9, 2001 were $1,403,626, down from $2,006,174, a year earlier, a 30 percent decrease.
A company press release from October cited factors like a drop in real estate sales, equipment repair and rentals, and an increase in leasing and management fees.
According to Phillips, things are looking up so far this year, with a 9 percent increase in skier visits over this time last year. As always, though, snowfall will be the make-or-break issue.
“Last year the big drop was due to the poor snow conditions we had,” Phillips says.
At Great Divide, Taylor is waiting for at least one more big snowstorm. His ski area has put plenty of money into man-made snow, and it has a couple hundred acres up and running, but there are still about 700 acres that remain closed until the next major snowfall.
“Snow, that’s the number one and overriding and all-consuming thing,” Taylor says. “If it snows in a season you get plenty of money and if it doesn’t you struggle and you wonder why you’re doing it.”
To grow or not to grow?
In many respects, Montana need look no further than Colorado to get a glimpse of its own skiing future: Big, glitzy resorts swallowing up small communities, intrusion into critical wildlife habitat, water degradation, increased traffic, more clearcuts, long drives from working-class villages to the overpriced land of trophy homes, noisy development where once it was green and serene, hoards of wealthy out-of-state skiers where there used to be just 50th-place worker bees.
Consider it not so much a threat as a warning. The reality (some would say the good news) is that Montana is not in imminent danger of becoming another Colorado. Our state is still perceived as crankily anti-business despite the best efforts of the governor and the Chamber of Commerce. We’re on the map, but hard to find. Flying into the state remains costly and inconvenient, and driving here from anywhere, especially in the winter months, requires a serious commitment of time.
Still, says Dennis Glick, Colorado should serve as a warning to Montana.
Glick, stewardship program director with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, says the problem with ski areas is multi-fold. It’s not the clearcuts resulting from new ski runs that pose the biggest problem, though they shouldn’t be ignored. Nor is it the intrusion of ski runs into critical habitat, since that problem can be mitigated by a well-written environmental analysis. Rather, it’s the urban sprawl that inevitably follows the development of new resorts or the expansion of existing ones.
Ski areas, whether new or expanding, are viewed by a growing number of environmentalists as the same as any other development proposed on public land, says Glick. “If done carefully, with a conscientious effort to reduce impacts, skiing can certainly be an environmentally sensitive activity.”
But if it’s done without regard to wildlife or wildland values it can be as damaging as logging, road-building or any other land-disturbing resource extraction.
In Montana skiers and environmentalists go together like skis and poles. But environmentalists are beginning to recognize that ski area development and expansion have to be watched as carefully as any other development activity on public lands, says Glick.
“We’ve got to look at the cumulative impacts,” he says. “And if we do that we realize, ‘Oh my gosh, this type of development can really impact the environment.’”
Even when ski area owners do a conscientious job of developing or expanding with an eye towards protecting the surrounding environment, nearby development is often beyond their control. Along with a new or larger ski area, particularly a destination ski resort, come the second homes, the widened highways, the increased traffic count, degraded water, and displaced wildlife.
One of the challenges facing environmentalists—or anyone concerned about the development of ski areas—is that ski resorts sometimes must expand to stay in business, since the number of skiers and snowboarders has remained flat for a number of years, according to Glick. That forces ski area owners to broaden their range of activities to four seasons, offering mountain biking, folf tournaments and the like. And for the entrepreneurial risk-takers, it can also mean expanding ski areas into full-fledged, all-season resorts.
In other words, says Glick, the sport of skiing/snowboarding may not be growing in total numbers, but real estate development is booming. In some places, he says, building a ski resort is just an excuse to develop the surrounding land, and it’s the associated development that’s ultimately more harmful to the environment than any clear-cut slopes.
A case in point is the Big Sky resort south of Bozeman. At one time, there was no such town as Big Sky, Montana, and technically speaking, there still isn’t. But for all intents and purposes, the Big Sky resort is a town. Nestled between two wilderness areas, Big Sky was the dream of Montana native and former newsman Chet Huntley. Huntley had intended that Big Sky would be Montana’s first big, environmentally friendly ski resort. Alas, he died before his dream could be realized. “Now,” says Glick, “the wildlife is having to dodge highways, homes and cars.”
The cumulative impacts of any development are what can doom the water quality, the wildlife habitat and the splendid views. And so it is with ski areas. But as Glick points out, neither the U.S. Forest Service nor the resort owner can predict or control what neighboring landowners will do with their property once a resort goes up next door. A money-making residential subdivision might be a good bet, but you can’t base an environmental analysis on what your next-door neighbor might do with his land once you’ve developed yours.
“To some degree I sympathize with the resort owner,” says Glick, “because a lot of what goes on beyond their borders is beyond their control.”
Currently, every ski resort in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem is either in the process of expanding or is in “expansion mode.” Bridger Bowl, for instance, a “modest, well-done” ski area, proposes an expansion that may encroach upon wolverine habitat. The public comment on that environmental analysis is over and the final Record of Decision is pending.
Though the Greater Yellowstone Coalition is keeping its eye on it, Glick doesn’t sound alarmed at what Bridger Bowl is proposing.
In fact, many Montana ski areas are expanding, but few, if any, are growing into Colorado-style destination resorts.
That’s no reason to be complacent, however. The experience of Colorado may be Montana’s canary in the coal mine, or—in the parlance of environmentalists—an indicator species. And as Colorado goes, can Montana be that far behind?
It’s not easy being green
While there’s no question that white is the preferred color for ski resort managers to see when they gaze out on their slopes, green is becoming an increasingly important hue in the ski industry–and not only because it’s the color of money. In an effort to improve the environmental track record and image of ski resorts nationwide, the National Ski Area Association has created an omnibus environmental charter dubbed “Sustainable Slopes,” geared toward instructing ski areas how to achieve higher levels of environmental soundness. The charter, a collaborative effort from the ski industry, government agencies, and environmental groups, has been endorsed by 160 ski areas in the country (representing roughly 70 percent of national skier/snowboarder visits), including most of the ski hills in Montana.
The charter sets forth a vision statement whose goal is: “To be leaders among outdoor recreation providers through managing our businesses in a way that demonstrates our commitment to environmental protection and stewardship while meeting the expectations of the public.” What follows are a series of principles, with an emphasis on the environmental streamlining of ski area planning, operations and public outreach. Some environmental groups, however, feel that the charter does not go far enough in ensuring environmentally sound practices.
Michael Collins, president and CEO of the Big Mountain ski area in Whitefish, thinks Sustainable Slopes is a viable and important charter. “We’re doing a number of them,” he says, referring to the practices outlined in the charter. “We look at a list of the things being done by ski areas around the country to see what we can use up here.” Examples of those practices implemented at Big Mountain are a cardboard baling program, aluminum recycling, and an ongoing water monitoring program in conjunction with the resort’s snowmaking facilities.
According to the Ski Area Citizens Coalition (SACC), though, Big Mountain has much work to do before it can be considered a steward of the environment. The Colorado-based SACC, formed by a conglomeration of green groups in the spring of 1999 to serve as an environmental watchdog of the ski industry, released a report card that rates most of the large ski resorts in the nation in terms of their environmental soundness. Big Mountain received a 36 percent score on the extensive grading scale, just high enough to avoid a failing grade and warrant a “D.” For comparison, Montana’s Big Sky, Bridger Bowl and Red Lodge all received “C” ratings. Idaho’s Silver Mountain and Sun Valley both received “A” ratings. Wyoming’s Jackson Hole resort got a “D.”
One area where Big Mountain got hammered the hardest on the report card deals with expansion issues. Big Mountain’s ongoing expansion project, approved by the Flathead National Forest in 1995 and begun in 1998, received 5 out of a possible 40 points in the two applicable criteria. The low score is the result of 143 acres of forest cutting required called for the new runs, as well as the development of a 630-acre parcel owned by Big Mountain for high-priced residential development.
Collins doesn’t give much credence to the SACC report. In fact, he sounds downright disdainful when he speaks of it. “Our expansion plans have gone through the NEPA process, they have a full EIS, that’s all been approved,” he says. “We also have development plans for our own private lands. My understanding is that there is some sort of grade on that…Why would that be a criteria for grading a ski area? Are they telling us that we don’t have a right to do things on our own land?”
As for the report card as a whole, Collins says, “We really don’t care what they graded us. It’s such a pathetic survey.”
Ben Doon, a research associate for SACC, says that it’s not simply a matter of land ownership. “Whether the land is public or private, it has certain needs to wildlife and the ecosystem in general that the developer needs to be sensitive to” he says. “Large-scale suburban- or urban-type developments are going to have impacts on that land. We’re simply documenting those impacts and not really looking at who owns the land.”
Doon notes that development alone does not doom a resort to a failing grade. “Just because a resort expands, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will do poorly,” he says. “It all depends on the size and scope of the expansion. There’s a resort here in Colorado—Wolf Creek—that recently expanded and I think they got a 10 out of 20 in that category. But the rest of their expansion didn’t have an impact and they still got an ‘A.’”
Big Mountain also received poor marks in the “Avoiding Terrain Alteration in Environmentally Sensitive Areas” criteria. The report documents two reasons for the low score: a biological assessment from the Forest Service that deems the Big Mountain expansion “likely to adversely affect” Canada lynx populations, and a letter from Big Mountain to the Forest Service advocating a reduction of the scope of the Roadless Area Protection Initiative and the Endangered Species Act.
Doon says that the recent push in the ski industry to expand resorts is one that needs to be closely watched. “We think the land-use patterns of the traditional West are changing from a lot of the traditional logging and mining to a more recreation-based model, so putting these issues to the forefront was the impetus for the report cards,” he says.
Still, SACC is wary of being dismissed as mere nabobs of negativism. “As individual environmental groups, we were always criticizing development projects, and we felt that we were getting a reputation as being against the ski industry,” says Doon. “But that’s not true at all. We all ski. So we felt we needed to do something that would differentiate certain resorts that we feel are being good stewards of the environment versus those that are not. We are trying to point that out and hope skiers might decide to patronize resorts with better environmental records.”