In 2011, the most expensive town in the United States was Aspen, Colorado. Once a small mining town, the establishment of the Aspen ski area in the 1940s put Aspen on the map, bringing large numbers of wealthy tourists to enjoy the snow. This brought interest in real estate, development, and amenity migration—people moving for the relaxed mountain lifestyle. Now, the median sales price of an Aspen home is $836,000, while the per capita income is about $58,703. There are high rates of suicide in Aspen as well as other ski towns, with stress coming from the seasonal nature of employment and financial and social issues of living in a gentrified community filled mostly with empty weekend homes. Along the streets you will find stores like Gucci, J. Crew, and Prada, and if you want to enjoy the ski hill, you’ll have to have over $200 to spend on a lift ticket.
The story of Aspen, Colorado, a mountain town that became a miniature Manhattan, is not uncommon. Stories like this are pervasive in the United States. Towns like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Ketchum, Idaho face similar issues and see similar amounts of celebrity home-buying and high suicide rates. They became weekend and summer havens for the rich and upper middle-class, and nightmares for a working class too poor to live in the towns they work.
It may seem that Canadian towns do not face these same risks of gentrification and environmental degradation. Most mountain towns are part of the national parks controlled by Parks Canada or provincial parks controlled by BC and Alberta, and as such are subject to different laws than other towns. Various development, population, and environmental regulations exist for townships in Yoho, Jasper, Banff, Kootenay, Mount Revelstoke, and Glacier National Parks to protect the land from detrimental development. Provincial parks in Alberta and BC provide similar protections to parks like Bow Valley and Wells Gray and the towns within.
However, in recent years locals residing in these towns have seen a troubling reality. Skyrocketing real estate prices, increased amenity migration, high tourist numbers bringing traffic issues, and new development projects threaten the towns’ boundaries, the parks that contain them, and the environment and wildlife of the parks themselves. This story is complex, and will see changes as soon as this summer, with higher numbers of tourists expected. The tension between developing these ever-popular towns and parks and keeping these spaces protected is getting higher.
Adventure Without Risk
In February, the owners of Silvertip Resort in Canmore, Alberta announced a proposed $1 billion project to build a gondola to the abandoned tea house on Mount Lady MacDonald. The plan also included an already approved 300,000-square foot conference centre (one of the “largest in the country” if built, Silvertip CEO Guy Turcotte explains), a casino, and a 1,300-room hotel. Citizens of Canmore were not pleased, but Turcotte insisted that the gondola would contribute to the growing local economy, and that since “most people cannot hike the mountain,” a gondola would provide an “upper mountain experience for everyone.” But Turcotte failed to mention the gondola that already exists in Banff, about a 30-minute drive away. There is also a large casino, Stoney Nakoda Resort, a 20-minute drive down the Trans-Canada Highway.
Many mountain development projects attempt to gain approval, from the public and the government, by emphasizing inclusivity. They highlight how they are bringing the mountains to everyone, making them accessible to people and honouring those with different needs. It is a respectable goal, but it has less merit once one takes a look at the prices of these mountain experiences. A ride up the Brewster Banff gondola up Sulphur Mountain costs $49 per adult and $25 per child. Visiting the Jasper Skywalk, also managed by Brewster, sets an adult back $30 per person and $15 per child to walk across the glass walkway overlooking the Rockies. Adult weekday lift tickets at popular resorts cost upwards of $100 each, not including any ski rentals or food consumed on the resort premises, or the cost of getting to the resort: a weekend away with a family of four can easily cost thousands of dollars. For how much these ski areas and developments emphasize their commitment to accessibility, it is always at a steep price.
Writer Hal Clifford, author of the book Downhill Slide, describes this resort phenomenon as “adventure without risk.” Resorts and attractions sell the mountain adventure experience, and the customer bears little to no risk to this adventure, as long as they can pay the ticket price. Ski resorts fall under the same category. Instead of skinning up a mountain to ski maybe two or three runs in a day, doing all the uphill work yourself and having to plot your own routes down, ski hills make it easy to get up and ski down perfectly groomed runs with little risk.
But using this excuse of bringing the mountains to the people, however valid it may be, also disguises much of the motivation behind opening a resort or attraction in the mountains: real estate.
Houses and rentals in mountain towns have tremendous value. After experiencing these mountain adventures, it is not surprising that many tourists become enamoured with the mountain lifestyle, complete with awe-inspiring scenery, interesting people, and après-ski. Interest in weekend and vacation homes is high in mountain towns, especially if they are close to a ski resort (or many). In Canada, it is wealthy individuals and families from Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and the United States purchasing weekend accommodation, or perhaps just moving there altogether. The Globe and Mail recommends purchasing or renting condos and homes in Banff, Canmore, and Whistler for those looking to invest in vacation property, citing “good, consistent turnover” and “people willing to pay a premium to spend that season in the mountains.” The difficulty is that these amenity migrants and weekenders bring a different set of understandings and values than the original dwellers, creating tension in their adopted homes and pushing locals out of rental accommodation. Writer Robert W. Sandler, author of The Weekender Effect who hails from a changing mountain town himself, describes how towns used to lack traffic and even traffic lights, until so many migrants from cities in Alberta arrived that they needed to be established. It may seem like a simple change, but to locals, it represents a paradigm shift in town’s makeup and economy.
The first point anyone makes in response to critics of developments and migration in mountain parks (or anywhere really) is the large economic benefit the investment in the local community will bring. Employment is often emphasized, and how the resort or activity will bring in tourists is also a selling point.
This discussion definitely has merit. With Alberta in a recession and unemployment rampant, there is much hope of Banff and other park areas easing this blow to the economy through tourism. Attendance this summer is expected to rise, especially with Parks Canada’s free passes for Canada’s 150th Anniversary, and Alberta hopes to boost tourism revenue by about 25 percent by 2020. Most mountain towns historically were created and sustained on revenue from resource extraction (think forestry and mining )that have been in decline. In looking to further diversify local economies, BC and Alberta governments show great interest in investment in tourism and recreational activities.
However, one of the largest concerns for mountain towns and resort areas is the lack of affordable housing. Growing towns like Banff and Canmore especially lack the short-term accommodations that makes it possible for people to work lower-wage jobs in the resort and town sites. Housing and rental prices have also increased rapidly over the past few years in towns like Revelstoke and Golden due to extremely attractive real estate markets for short-term rental programs and people looking for weekend homes near ski resorts. There are few rental suites available, with many areas facing a zero-vacancy rate. Employers are now looking into creating dorm-style housing, recognizing there is no way they will get the number of workers they need while expecting people to commute or find their own accommodation. In justifying new resorts and attractions, employment is also exaggerated; most employment is seasonal, which is not ideal for locals, and many of the jobs go to foreigners looking to enjoy the ski season.
What is often most difficult to articulate in situations where development is opposed, especially in regards to the environment, is the true social and economic cost. Accounting for externalities economically is already difficult, but articulating the loss of a true mountain community is almost impossible, and encapsulating the feelings of disheartened locals who have been forced out of their familiar home is challenging. But there are other costs that can be measured. One of the largest is wildlife.
A significant draw for tourists to visit Canada’s National Parks is to see wilderness they have never encountered: grizzly bears or herds elk, to hike up a mountain higher than anything they have ever seen, or to have an adventure in a place that is still considered “wild.” But as more tourists come, businesses and townships want to take advantage of their new clientele, development creeps up and threatens the very existence of the Canadian parks and their wildlife.
During the summer of 2016, in Banff alone, two wolves were killed after showing aggressive behaviour towards humans in campsites. Four of six wolf cubs in 2016 were killed being struck on the rail and highways. As more hikers descend into these areas, the more disturbance the animals face. Banff National Park saw 105 “messy campsite violations” last year, three times the 2015 amount. Messy campsites mean more attractants for wolves and bears to walk into campsites, sealing their fate to be euthanized once they associate human activity with food sources and begin to follow visitors.
Balancing the need for tourism and desire for people to enjoy the mountain parks with the realities of mountain development is extremely difficult. It is a paradox: the wilderness attracts tourists, but the tourists also attract the demand and growth that threatens the wilderness. Recognizing this trade-off is important. Creating beautiful towns in the incredible Rocky Mountains that are only accessible to the wealthy is not the Canadian way, nor is it economical to ignore the enormous social and environmental externalities, or expect enough people to be able to work in these areas without proper housing and community engagement. But engaging people with these parks is also a way to increase environmental awareness, and encouraging individuals to be active in the outdoors and enjoy all Canada has to offer is also important.
So as we debate the infamous Jumbo Valley Resort that faces 25 years of local opposition, or the Revelstoke Adventure Park planned to be 9 times the size of Disneyland, or even Garibaldi at Squamish (planned by two of BC’s richest families), it is essential that the realities of these developments and their goals are discussed. The success of our mountain parks depends on it.