Some mountains make for better ski areas than others.
All skiers and snowboarders know this.
And part of the joy of the sport is traveling to different areas and seeing how different mountains are laid out. How they ski. How they work.
Paul Hauk, a U.S. Forest Service official who oversaw the development of many ski areas in the White River National Forest, seemed to have a knack for recognizing which mountains would work well for lifts and trails.
In his career as a recreation planner for the Forest Service on the White River, Hauk prepared over 50 feasibility studies for ski areas on different mountains in the west.
He saw Copper Mountain’s potential as early as 1952, and agreed with Vail’s founders that Vail Mountain would make a very good ski area.
And he had a hand in shaping Aspen Highlands, one of the more interesting, delightful and fun places to ski in the state.
Hauk has a big role in the recent book “Colorado Power Keg: Ski Resorts and the Environmental Movement” by Michael W. Childers.
The book’s focus is on the tensions that arise when an official like Hauk blesses the idea of a ski area, which then can bring the reality of roads, trails, lifts, buildings, sewer pipes, parking lots, and snowmaking systems, all of which can radically change the natural face of a mountain ecosystem.
Childer’s subject matter would make for a great coffee table book, as it is fascinating to see aerial photographs of ski areas before they were ski areas. Such photos show that ski areas are indeed made, and not born.
Instead, “Colorado Powder Keg” is a bit of scholarly slog, although it will surely be of interest to anyone interested in the development of Colorado’s Western Slope, its ski areas, and the central role of the Forest Service in the state’s ski areas.
Childers strives to add some tension to the story by focusing on the arson on Vail Mountain in October 1998 that took down the original Two Elks restaurant. However, Daniel Glick’s “Powder Burn: Arson, Money and Mystery on Vail Mountain,” may offer a more lively view of those events.
But Childers does take advantage of the luxury of more time passing — and the conviction of ten environmental arsonists — and puts the Vail fires into a larger and updated context.
And indeed, shortly after “Colorado Powder Keg” was published in late December, an alleged member of the Earth Liberation Front said to be involved in the Vail fires turned herself in at the Canadian border, after being a fugitive for a decade. Rebecca Rubin, 39, recently pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and arson charges in a federal court in Oregon.
Childers sets the stage for the debate over the expansion of the Vail ski area into Blue Sky Basin by reaching way back to Aldo Leopold, who wrote in 1921 about the “age old conflict between preservation and use long since an issue with respect to timber, water power and other purely economic resources, but just now coming to be an issue with respect to recreation.”
The book includes references to Aspen, and describes the fight over the now-dormant ski area in Marble, but it gives the fight over the expansion of the Snowmass Ski Area onto Burnt Mountain a pass, although surely it is relevant to the book’s focus. Childers focuses instead on the development of Winter Park, Vail and Beaver Creek.
But “Colorado Powder Keg” is definitely worth wading through, as it provides plenty to think about while on a chair lift.
Brent Gardner-Smith is editor and executive director of Aspen Journalism