When I was a kid (yeah, I know that makes me sound about a million years old), there were loads of mom & pop ski areas around. You know, small family owned and operated places with a rope tow, maybe one or two chair lifts, a few trails, not a lot of grooming, and minimal snowmaking. They weren’t huge and I’m sure it was a struggle each year to stay alive. But they were closely tied to the surrounding community, and the focus was squarely on skiing.
It’s a different world today. Most of the mom & pops have been replaced with mega-resorts that trade on Wall Street. Go to Vail or Breckenridge, or to dozens of other ski resorts, and you’ll find condos, fancy base villages, and a whole host of off-snow activities. To be sure, there’s some great skiing there, too. And the amenities are not without value. Lots of people enjoy them, and I tell myself they help support the skiing. But there’s a downside, too. The development contributes to urban-style problems and can have an adverse effect on both the environment and the local community. And most distressing of all: the focus seems to be less on skiing, and more on the corporate bottom line.
Is there an alternative? Hal Clifford, a former editor at SKI Magazine and the Aspen Daily News, thinks so, and discusses it in his fascinating book, “Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry is Bad for Skiing.” (I highly recommend it.) And so does Mountain Riders Alliance, an organization that’s made it its mission to create ski areas that focus less on infrastructure and more on the mountain. Its stated goal: to develop values-based, environmentally-friendly, rider-centric mountain playgrounds that have a positive impact in the local community.
I recently asked Jamie Schectman, one of MRA’s co-founders, to tell us more about his organization.
SD: Can you give me some history about Mountain Riders Alliance? How did it get started and why?
JS: We started MRA in 2009 because of our growing concerns about the direction our beloved sport has taken. Many of us passionate skiers and riders are not interested in the current corporate ski model, where the focus is on the out of boot amenities, theme park attractions, and real estate sprawl. We want the sport to refocus on the ski experience.
SD: Can you briefly describe your goals?
JS: We want to bring the triple bottom line philosophy of people, planet, then profit to the ski industry. We want to create as well as convert existing ski areas around the world to MRA Mountain Playgrounds.
It’s terrible to think that climate change could make skiing extinct, if drastic action isn’t taken. We believe all ski resorts have an excellent opportunity to create renewable energy. Since utilities are usually the number two cost in the ski industry and account for 75% of a resort’s emissions, we will prove that clean energy is both economically and financially sustainable.
SD: What are your objections to the way most ski areas are run? How would you do things differently?
JS: First of all, I’m very grateful for the corporate ski resorts. They’ve provided many years of amazing times and helped me be the skier I am today. We just believe there’s another segment of the ski population whose needs aren’t currently being meet.
In our model, we would greatly reduce the infrastructure and get back to being in the uphill transportation business. Instead of corporate ski resorts, where all the money spent in the village and on the mountain is funneled to the stakeholder, we’ll forge partnerships with the local community. When our mountain playground makes money, everyone will prosper.
SD: So how will your business model work? Will you acquire resorts outright, or work with them as partners?
JS: Each Mountain Playground will be a Limited Partnership. We are putting the structure in place so that communities will have the opportunity to buy into their own ski areas. Mountain Rider’s Alliance, LLC will take a small minority stake for facilitating the deal and work as the general managing partner. Each Mountain Playground will be unique to itself, but share MRA core values of Community, Environment and Riders.
SD: Will you create any resorts from the ground up, or are you only interested in acquisitions?
JS: We’ll do both: create new areas from the ground up, such as Manitoba Mountain, Alaska, as well as acquire existing ski areas. There are many ski areas around the country, such as Snow King, Wyoming, Moonlight Basin, MT, and others that need a new direction and change in ownership.
Our criteria for selecting a Mountain Playground will include on-site renewable energy potential, exciting terrain and community support.
SD: How can ski areas be more sustainable? What are you doing to promote this?
JS: Aside from implementing the low-hanging fruit such as resort-wide recycling programs, composting, using biodiesel, and so on, ski areas can really make a difference by becoming energy providers. Between solar, wind, geothermal, and microhydro, virtually every ski resort has the ability to make energy. Since they are almost always connected to the grid, any excess energy generated can be sold back to the utility company in all 43 net metering states.
SD: Can you tell me about some of the projects MRA is involved in?
JS: We have been working with an existing ski area and hope to change ownership to MRA’s first Mountain Playground this summer. Once we have successfully completed the conversion, it will serve as the blueprint for other areas.
There are currently many ski areas and communities around the world that are looking for a new direction and change of ownership. We won’t be a typical franchise where you have the same Big Mac all over the world. Each Mountain Playground will be indigenous and unique to itself but will share MRA’s core values of being Community focused, Environmental stewards, and Rider centric.
Our other exciting project is Manitoba Mountain, Alaska. Located on the Kenai Peninsula, 90 minutes from Anchorage, this Mountain Playground will raise the bar for North American skiing. With 3 surface lifts and access to 10,000 acres of world-class Chugach terrain, our concept of “big on mountain, small on infrastructure” will be showcased. Imagine accessing helicopter-like skiing terrain via a surface lift.
SD: Can you tell me about some of your partnerships?
JS: We have forged many strategic alliances.Working with Protect Our Winters, we will be creating an Environmental and Climate Educational Center (EC2) at each of our Mountain Playgrounds. Truly combating climate change starts with education. We’ve also teamed up with Olympian Suzy “Chapstick” Chaffee and her organization, the Native American Olympic Team Foundation. We strongly believe that Native Americans should have more access to the mountains and look forward to creating programs at our Mountain Playgrounds to assist in that goal. And one of our favorite partners is with SheJumps. As every Ski Diva knows, we need more women in our sport. Together we will be creating an annual She Jumps Spring Fling at Manitoba Mountain. We want to create an annual event with skiing, music and good times, to give people another reason to come visit the Chugach each spring. We’re all about building partnerships with other like-minded companies. Feel free to contact us if you are interested.
SD: What can we, as skiers, do to help MRA achieve its goals?
JS: As a start-up grassroots organization, we’ve taken advantage of many riders’ various skills to develop what now is Mountain Rider’s Alliance. Everyone is encouraged to get the word out! If you would be like to become more involved, feel free to contact us. We also will be rolling out our MRA Membership package soon.