Nationalize the Ski Slopes

Ski resorts should be public facilities available to all, not expensive luxuries for the wealthy few. Powder to the people!

Fewer and fewer Americans are able to enjoy snow sports with each passing year. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Americans have loved skiing for the better part of a century. In the post-WWII years, families enriched by the G. I. Bill took to the mountains of Vermont and Colorado, where they found a pastime equal parts exciting and relaxing, deep in the heart of nature. Mirroring the rise of skateboarding, snowboarding became popular in the 1970s and ’80s, bringing an influx of young thrillseekers to the mountains. Slopeside, the cultures merged, creating the existing resort dynamic of family-friendly restaurants and daredevil terrain parks.

Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Americans are able to enjoy snow sports with each passing year. What was once a pastime readily available to any ordinary person with a free weekend and a little extra dough has become a luxury exclusive to the elite. This exclusivity is not a consequence of market scarcity but of the profit motive.

Of course, there’s no reason profit should be involved at all. Mountainside recreational facilities can be run by and for the public, just like nature parks and playgrounds across the nation. It’s high time we nationalized the ski slopes.

Mountains of Profit

Ask anyone with a Burton sticker on their Nalgene to name the biggest problem with snow sports and you’ll get the same answer: tickets are too expensive, and lift lines are too long.

Skiing didn’t always cost an arm and a leg. When Vail Resort opened in 1962, tickets were $5, approximately $47.91 in today’s dollars. Today, it costs $275 for a weekend ticket, an increase of 573 percent. With tickets costing almost sixfold what they did at the onset of US ski culture, it’s no mystery why ski resorts are becoming exclusive habitats of the affluent. Resort parking lots look like BMW dealerships, and it’s common to see children learning to “pizza and French fries” on skis worth a month of minimum wages.

As the United States’ wealth is disproportionately held by white Americans, cost exclusivity leads to a severe racial disparity. According to data from the National Ski Areas Association, over 87.5 percent of skiers are white. Only 1.5 percent of snow sports participants identify as black, compared to 13.6 percent of the population as a whole.

Secondary to the discrepancies in class and race is the issue that ski mountains are so crowded that they border on unusable. It is not uncommon for skiers to spend the majority of their $275 day waiting in a lift line. In early 2020, pictures of day-long lines at Vail Mountain went viral, an event quickly dubbed the “Lift-pocalypse.” Vail later apologized for not limiting tickets but made no attempt to resolve this issue, as evidenced by their season pass sales the following season. For the 2021–22 season, Vail Resorts sold 76 percent more season passes (called “Epic” passes) than the year prior. This equated to about 900,000 more tickets in circulation plus any others that were purchased the day of, further overcrowding the mountains and reducing enjoyment.

Unfortunately, these problems are only accelerating, driven by the interests of massive for-profit ski resort corporations. While ski resorts used to be predominantly independent, they are quickly being acquired for use in conglomerate season passes, which grant ticketholders access to multiple resorts. Together, the two main conglomerate passes, Ikon and Epic, currently cover over 120 ski mountains worldwide. Ikon is offered by Alterra Mountain Company, while Epic is offered by Vail Resorts, Inc. In heated competition with each other, these companies are quickly snapping up resorts and securing partnerships in billion-dollar deals.

These mergers are beneficial to those who can afford the over-$1,000 tickets but detrimental to everyone else. Not only does affiliation with the conglomerates tend to raise ticket prices for everyone, but it also significantly raises the cost of living in the surrounding mountain towns. As international passes draw in more and more wealthy tourists, the working class who cooks their meals and babysits their children is being priced out. Such is the case in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which has become outright unaffordable in the span of a few short years. Jackson Hole Ski Resort became part of the Ikon Pass in 2018.

Ultimately, the problems plaguing modern snow sports come down to the motivations of the entities that control them. Like all capitalist enterprises, companies like Vail and Alterra exist solely to make profit, not to facilitate the enjoyment of outdoor sports or appreciation of nature. When shareholders look at an end-of-year balance sheet, their sole concern is if the profit column is green or red, not if working-class American families had a memorable vacation.

But fortunately, problems caused by the profit motive can be resolved by its removal.

Powder to the People!

To enable Americans of all classes and races to enjoy snow sports, local, state, and federal governments should create publicly owned ski resorts. They could construct new resorts, purchase existing ones, or both. Once established, such resorts would operate similar to other public recreation entities, such as national or state parks.

This may sound far fetched, but such a model already exists in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Located in Franconia Notch State Park, Cannon Mountain appears no different than another ski resort. With ten lifts and close to a hundred trails, it is among the upper tier of skiable terrain in the American Northeast and even holds the top spot for the highest vertical drop in New Hampshire. The only difference between Cannon and the other mountains is that it is publicly owned.

Born from the New Deal–funded Civilian Conservation Corps work of the 1930s, Cannon has been owned and operated by the state of New Hampshire for close to a century. Lift tickets start at $99, significantly less than the aforementioned price for Vail or even the $160 for the nearby resort of Stowe in neighboring Vermont. Cannon does not engage in predatory price hikes for weekends or holidays either. Rather, the resort sells half-priced tickets to New Hampshire residents on select days, facilitating public enjoyment of common land. And because enjoyment is a priority, Cannon limits the number of tickets sold each day, avoiding the overcrowding common on for-profit mountains.

Absent public ownership, there are intermediate steps we can take to promote increased public enjoyment of skiing. Many private ski resorts, including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, and Keystone, exist in national forests under permit from the US Forest Service. It is an indictment of our society that these capitalist enterprises are profiting from land they do not own while pricing out local residents in the process. As they exist with the grace of the US public, it is well within our rights to require solutions in exchange for their permits. We could demand free or reduced lift tickets, lessons, and equipment rentals for local or state residents, for example. We could also demand guaranteed affordable housing to ensure that the local working class — many of whom are employed to keep the resorts running — isn’t displaced to make room for chalets designed for rich tourists.

The problems plaguing the ski community are as artificially created as snow from a snow gun. There are over 73,301 mountains in the United States. They are not a scarce commodity. Neither is snow. There’s no reason for skyrocketing ticket prices and ever-lengthening lift lines. Public money and initiative can create new resorts, and the public’s enjoyment of them will offer a quick return on investment.

Skiing and snowboarding are wonderful sports that fill the soul with passion, purpose, and appreciation for the earth we have all been gifted. It should be the birthright of any American to enjoy their land through this spectacular pastime, not just the privileged few.