By: Erika Brown, Communications Manager, San Juan Citizens Alliance
January 18, 2017
“It is, Pitch is most proud to say, the antithesis of the glitz and glamor he sees across Colorado’s ski country.” Seth Boster1
If you rely on sipping on a pumpkin latte before donning your heated boots and taking a gondola ride up the mountain, you probably aren’t a regular at Wolf Creek Ski Area. Despite being blessed with the greatest snowfall in the state, the resort has spurned Starbucks, luxury retail development, and refreshingly, even growth. Owner of the family-run ski resort, Davey Pitcher is happy to turn away tourists in favor of attracting locals and those seeking the increasingly rare unpretentious resort ski experience.
In fact, it is the pure joy of skiing from which Wolf Creek Ski Area was born, 40 years ago, when Davey Pitchers’ father, Kingsbury Pitcher known simply as Pitch, bought the area. “What we bought, it was nothing,” Pitch recalls.2 It’s been a family endeavor ever since.
A couple hundred thousand people ski at Wolf Creek each year, a number that has held flat for decades. The philosophy bucks the dominant theory that businesses must grow, must take in more and more profit each year. It’s also why so many are loyal to this rare-gem of a ski resort, where you’d be hard pressed to find many actual gems.
Surrounding the ski area, backcountry skiers trade in the modest conveniences to enjoy the region’s massive amounts of snow at an even more affordable price: their own muscle power. Wolf Creek Pass, though minimally developed, is heavily used in both the winter and summer by both human-powered and fossil-fueled recreationists. One elusive native resident, the Canada Lynx, is having to share its home with a lot of folks these days and likely wouldn’t do well with more.
Highway 160 shuttles powder lovers and residents alike over the nearly 11,000 foot pass. It often closes in winter due to avalanche danger and accidents are not uncommon on hairpin turns that are often snow-packed even when valley residents are trail running in shorts. Tourists and residents alike often wait out road closures or take substantially longer routes to get to their destination.
It is not Interstate 70 and it is not Vail Resorts, and a lot of people and wildlife really like it that way.
To many, Wolf Creek Ski Area conjures blissful days of powder without the drain on their wallets. It brings us back to a more simple era, without the frivolity modern times seems to have adopted as the norm.
Others want to build a massive modern development atop the pass, to make it a more luxurious destination. Texas billionaire, Red McCombs has been trying to develop not just high-end retail and lodging at Wolf Creek, but an entire town. His first attempt was a far more modest proposal back in 1986, but his ambition has grown to a year-round development for 8,000 people.
The Forest Service has, in fact, approved a land transfer, granting McCombs the highway access he needs to realize his vision. But it is by no means a done deal. We are part of an alliance of regional environmental organizations suing over the decision and construction can’t begin until it is settled.
There are a litany of reasons the Forest Service should never have approved a deal that benefits private interests and profits over that of the public good. Beyond evidence of developer collusion, lack of analysis, impact to a critical wildlife corridor, and concerns regarding water and rare fen wetlands, all of which our lawyers have painstakingly prepared for the judge’s consideration, there is a more intangible threat that haunts many locals and powder enthusiasts: the character of the ski area.
If you want a massage and a $15 cocktail after a day of skiing, Colorado has plenty of options for you. If you want a bowl of chili for under $5, not so much. Wolf Creek Ski Area is, today, an endangered species for which many are willing to fight to protect. Drive around southwestern Colorado for a day and you will inevitably ask about the ubiquitous ‘No Pillage at Wolf Creek’ bumper stickers that adorn so many vehicles – faded and torn from years of shouting their message in the extremes of Colorado weather.
Were the proposed Village to be built, the threat of success and failure seem equally frightening.
Luxury ski resorts now being the norm, it is unclear that one as far off the beaten path as Wolf Creek could survive. It’s several hours from an international airport along a treacherous highway and would likely struggle to compete with the near-monopoly Vail Resorts has amassed throughout the West. Locals would scatter and shun the new development, even if they could afford it.
If it succeeded, The Village at Wolf Creek would replace the simple, old-time feel and bare-bones character of the ski resort with the soulless gloss and glimmer of an operation fixated on profit alone. Eventually it seems likely it would takeover the ski resort itself, one of the last family-run ski areas remaining, demolishing buildings that have warmed the hearts and cold toes of winter sport purists for decades. Communities on either side of the pass, bridled with the costs of providing emergency services, maintaining roads and other infrastructure needs would nonetheless see increased visitor revenue siphoned off at the top at the pass. Meanwhile, the ecology of such a critical area for water and wildlife might buckle under the increased use.
And failure? Well, imagine empty once-glamorous buildings decaying more with each high-altitude winter, surrounded by empty parking lots. The natural world may eventually take it all back, but likely after several rounds of efforts to revitalize it – each time taking a bit more away from what was once a rare oasis.
How about a third option? Defeat the development once and for all and celebrate the local character of the true gem we have here in Southwest Colorado. An added bonus? The wildlife and water of the region will be protected too. And your kids may get to a taste of the sport’s ‘tremendous pleasure,’ 3 as Pitch describes remembering his boyhood outings on his wooden skis the better part of a century ago.