If the North Pole Treated Elves Like the Town of Vail Treats Workers, We’d Have to Cancel Christmas
Vail Town council rejects previously approved, shovel-ready housing plan and threatens to seize Vail Resorts' land to stop it forever
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Can’t they just, like, go live someplace where we can’t see them or something?
Five years ago, The New York Times ran an illuminating story on bighorn sheep and the gilded collective of hunters forever in their pursuit. Written by frequent ski writer John Branch (his 2012 story on the Tunnel Creek avalanche near Stevens Pass is a Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece), the feature cast bighorns as cagey and fearless animals, comfortably thriving in the primeval wilderness:
Non-hunters often presume that the biggest prize in North America is something large and fierce — some kind of bear, perhaps, or an elk, a moose or a mountain lion. But the widespread belief among serious hunters is that rams are the ultimate pursuit.
That is for two reasons. One, opportunities to hunt sheep are scarce, and often prohibitively expensive. Two, the hunts are among the most difficult, often lasting weeks in some of the most remote regions on Earth.
“For 100 years, it’s been somewhat at the pinnacle of big-game hunting, especially in the United States,” said Bob Anderson, a hunter and author of books on sheep-hunting. “But there weren’t a lot of people or sheep on the mountains. Now it’s become a cocktail party of sorts. Some well-to-do people have gotten into it, and they’ve driven the market up.” …
What they are not buying is an easy trophy. Sheep live in steep and treeless terrain, above the timberline in the mountains or in the rugged hills of the desert. Sheep hunts can take hunters into places few humans have gone, and can include weeks of trekking and stalking.
“For the true hunter, you can’t buy them behind the fence,” [big-game guide Lance] Kronberger said. “You have to climb the mountain. The fat, rich guy is going to have a much harder time. Anybody can kill a bear if they sit on the beach or along the stream long enough. I could take a guy in a wheelchair and get him a bear. You can go and get your deer, get your elk. You can’t do that with sheep. You have to go and get it.”
Proceeds from the permits, which at the time cost as much $480,000 at auction, in turn fund conservation efforts that have helped the nation’s overall sheep herd rebound to around 200,000 animals, from an estimated 1950s-era low in the tens of thousands.
Stories like this always make me feel good. They’re evidence that something’s working. Everyone makes a trade-off: hunters acknowledge that wildlife is not a limitless source of plunder; sheep lovers that a handful of burly sheep specimens are fated to have their severed heads wall-mounted in the cartoonishly absurd game rooms of carcass-collecting Camo Bros. In the freeway-laced, predator-deprived, developmentally unhinged nation that we’ve clumped together over the past two and a half centuries, it’s a pretty neat compromise to help a native animal regain much of its historic territory while sating the American appetite for shooting things.
Unfortunately, we have entered an era in which absolutism reigns. As the ski industry housing crisis accelerates to levels that are endangering the viability of lift-served skiing as a sustainable enterprise, the town of Vail last week activated the nuclear option to block Vail Resorts’ long-planned affordable housing project near Vail Mountain. Per Jason Blevins in The Colorado Sun:
The Vail town council late Tuesday voted to condemn a parcel where Vail Resorts plans to spend $17 million to build affordable housing for 165 workers. Dozens of Vail Resorts executives, employees and managers crammed into the council’s chambers Tuesday night as the council heard passionate support for both housing and wildlife. Ultimately the council voted 4-3 to approve a resolution that gives the town the ability to seize ownership of the 23-acre parcel and prevent any development as a way to protect a bighorn herd that winters in the south-facing aspen groves along Interstate 70.
“I’m disappointed you’ve been backed into a corner and have to consider this resolution tonight,” said Terry Meyers, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society. “Please make the decision to protect the bighorn sheep herd and move forward to find other options for affordable housing in the Vail Valley. The sheep have to have this. They can’t go anywhere else.”
Exactly which corner the council members have been backed into is unclear: this same council (made up of different representatives), approved this project in 2019, and helped defend it in court in 2020. Vail, which owns the land, has promised to develop just six of the 23 acres. To protect the herd on the remaining land, Vail Resorts “partnered with wildlife experts and Colorado Park & Wildlife to develop an extensive mitigation plan, including funding for long overdue habitat rehabilitation,” and has earmarked $100,000 to implement that plan, a company representative told me. The project underwent “an extremely thorough environmental review process,” the representative added.
Meanwhile, more than 100 luxury homes already fill 95.6 acres of this supposedly sacred bighorn habitat. Vail’s proposed development is the three tiny yellow boxes labelled “East Vail Affordable Housing” in the image below:
“Vail needs housing now – not development that might happen in five years,” read a statement supplied by Vail Resorts to The Storm Skiing Journal on April 25. “If the Town can support luxury homes in East Vail, then it can support affordable housing. We will continue to aggressively pursue this affordable housing project for the hard-working employees in our community.”
Vail is not trying to ramrod some unwanted project through a hapless community here. Eighty percent of emails sent to the council ahead of last week’s meeting expressed support for the housing project, according to The Sun:
Former Vail council member Jenn Bruno, who voted to approve the Vail Resorts housing project in 2019, questioned the council’s push to condemn the land for “the health, safety and welfare of the public.”
“What public is being referenced? It’s not the workers,” Bruno said. “We are in a housing crisis that is affecting not only our guest experiences but the very make-up of our community. If we are really thinking about the welfare and safety of our neighbors, we would want to make sure they have homes.”
The suggestion that a herd of sheep that has managed to negotiate nearly 100 acres of mansionland developed amidst their territory over the past several decades would suddenly be thrust to the brink of extinction from the addition of six acres of dense housing hard by the roadside is absurd. This whole action by the town feels disingenuous and petty, a because-we-can temper tantrum rooted in the vaguely expressed notion that Vail Resorts has been a disrespectful negotiator.
While the town has not yet seized ownership of the land, the strident act by four precious council members all but assures that the legal fistfights will howl on for years. The brazen seizure of private land could ignite a fire that burns all the way to the Supreme Court, an absurd act of overreach that could wind up damaging future environmental efforts by stoking the business-friendly court majority to streamline development approvals. And in the meantime? Opponents of the plan continue to peddle platitudes about the importance of affordable housing.
“It’s been a struggle to stay here and live here. It’s been very sad to see what was once a very vibrant community implode on itself over the lack of affordable housing,” Vail mayor Kim Langmaid said, according to The Sun. “I’m not willing to risk [the bighorn herd’s] demise because I do believe there is a better solution out there. I know we can do this. This resolution does not preclude us from finding a solution. We don’t have to use eminent domain. We are just saying we can do it.”
So what is your solution, Mayor Langmaid? Other than approving of an inane town council action that reversed an approved and-ready-to-build project that would have addressed the problem that you supposedly care about. Being sad is not a solution to a housing shortage. The solution to a housing shortage is to build places for people to live.
True, the town did recently invest in 70 new units of employee housing at Main Vail, according to The Sun. Great. But right now, Mayor Langmaid looks like the mayor of the North Pole who just decided that the elves have to keep sleeping in their cars because we can’t squeeze an extra two acres out of Dasher and Dancer’s wintertime grazing range. Meanwhile, Timmy is not getting his train set for Christmas because the elves had to commute from Norway and traffic around the sixth iceberg was just pure hell today. And the ski resort, the literal only reason the town of Vail exists, is not going to be able to spin its lifts because bad policy spun up in the name of environmental stewardship will force employees to live three towns down the interstate.
As this sort of bad-faith myopia multiples among the NIMBiots across the West, the mountain-town housing crisis is going to continue to impact the big-mountain ski experience for everyone. It’s time for the people in charge to stop saying “no” and start coming up with ideas for sustainable, healthy communities.
Help save Quoggy Jo
Even by Maine standards, Quoggy Jo is remote. It sits along the edge of the country, six and a half miles from the New Brunswick border. It’s a single-T-bar operation, 215 vertical feet with a footprint so minimal that it appears no one has even bothered to create a trailmap. This picture tells you pretty much everything you need to know about what kind of place Quoggy Jo is and why it’s important:
Twenty-two years ago, the Maine Winter Sports Center appeared to ensure an indefinite future for this little bump, signing a 99-year lease to operate the ski area. But the center bailed on that agreement just 13 years later, according to New England Ski History, leaving the ski area with the Libra Foundation as its sole benefactor. Unfortunately, according to a recent post on the ski area’s Facebook page, that support has now expired:
As many people know, over the past 20+ years Quoggy Jo has been fortunate to have had a significant sponsorship from the Libra Foundation. This sponsorship has paid for the insurance and taxes every year taking a significant financial burden off of us and allowing us to keep our prices extremely affordable for everyone. Unfortunately, we were informed in March that the foundation will not be funding us any longer. This has left an unexpected deficit in our operating budget of around $34,000.
Unfortunately, because of the business model that Quoggy Jo has operated under, we do not have surplus funds to overcome this obstacle. We have diverted funds from other projects towards this urgent expense as it is due for renewal in May.
Anyone who wants to help can make a tax-deductible donation here:
Anyone who donates $500 will receive a five-person family season pass. The ski area will also start selling advertising and renting its lodge and properties for events.
Below the subscriber jump: the ski area community that is actually building worker housing, a big ski area expansion sails along, an unlikely megapass pairing, a New England ski area may be prepping for a comeback, and more.