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The Politics of Skiing

The Politics of Skiing

The new snow-country strategy: Ski locally; act nationally.
By Martin Forstenzer, Contributor to SKI Magazine
posted: 10/22/2008

In the noisy approach to November’s presidential election, politics has elbowed its way to the front of seemingly every discussion. In fact, politics has always played a key role, if quiet one, in the ski industry, especially for those 136 ski areas sitting at least partly on U.S. Forest Service land. With the U.S. government as a landlord, those resorts routinely work closely with the Forest Service on a range of concerns. Of course, the politics of skiing doesn’t end there. Resorts frequently deal with local and state governments on the minutiae of mountain operations, from parking policies to high-country water restrictions. Check out our gallery of reps who rip here.

Over the past decade, however, broader issues have arisen, causing the ski industry to fundamentally change its lobbying strategy. “We’ve increased our efforts on the political side significantly,” says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, which coordinates and leads the ski industry’s national lobbying efforts. “If you turn the clock back 10 or so years, we mainly worked with the Forest Service, but now we have a wider range of issues that we address,” Berry says. Conversely, politicians and government agencies now seem to be paying more attention to skiing than ever before.

The hottest issue affecting skiing right now is one that few would have predicted a decade ago: immigration. Operations at many ski resorts were disrupted last season when tougher visa regulations caused a shortage of foreign workers, who are employed as everything from ski instructors to hotel housekeepers. The ski industry is working to persuade Congress to restore a visa exemption that allowed foreign workers to return to seasonal jobs without being counted in restrictive national quotas. “It has been a frustrating year of lobbying hard,” says Geraldine Link, the NSAA’s full-time public policy specialist, who spends much of her time in Washington meeting with legislators and officials from the Forest Service and other agencies. “It’s an election year, and the issue has been pulled into the larger immigration debate.”

Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, has addressed another immigration issue that mainly affects U.S. ski areas located near the Canadian border. The U.S. is imposing stricter documentation requirements for people coming across the border. The new rules, originally scheduled to go into effect before last season, could have hurt resorts, such as Vermont’s Jay Peak, that depend on Canadian skiers. After listening to Riehle and other representatives of ski business and other industries, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont worked to delay the new requirements, giving Canada time to issue an expanded drivers’ license that satisfies new U.S. border requirements.

Immigration, of course, is dwarfed by the most serious long-term problem facing the sport of skiing: global warming. The NSAA’s Berry testified before Congress earlier this year about its potential impacts. Although Washington’s lack of action is disappointing to many, the ski industry is one more voice adding to the chorus of concern over global warming. “I see our input as a huge plus, because back in 2002, when we adopted our official climate change policy, it wasn’t such a mainstream issue,” Link says. “But it has subsequently become front and center in Washington.”

Perhaps more than any other resort in the nation, Aspen Skiing Co. has committed itself to confronting the political challenges inherent in fighting global warming. The job of Auden Schendler, Aspen’s executive director of sustainability, is now dedicated almost entirely to persuading the public and those in power about the urgency of the problem. “Our biggest lever is our soapbox—the fact that we get international press coverage and that we’re a business that has access to influential people,” Schendler says. “We’re doing exponentially more now than we were doing five years ago.”

While the ski industry has pumped up its effort to influence Washington, Congress has taken its own steps to stay more involved in snowsports issues. One of skiing’s best friends in Washington has been Democratic U.S. Congressman Mark Udall of Colorado, currently running for U.S. Senator. Udall is former executive director of Colorado Outward Bound who, in addition to skiing at many Colorado resorts, is an accomplished mountaineer and skier who has summited Kanchenjunga—the third-highest mountain in the world—and skied down several 14,000-foot peaks.

In 2003, along with former New York Congressman John Sweeney, Udall formed the Congressional Ski and Snowboard Caucus, a bipartisan group of 22 House members who meet several times a year with ski industry representatives to keep current on issues. In addition to Udall, the caucus also includes members from California, Utah, Washington, Montana, New Hampshire and other states with large ski industries. Link is among those who attend caucus meetings to speak about concerns like immigration and global warming. “It’s a way to communicate and raise issues with a lot of different members of Congress from both parties at one time,” Link says.

Udall has tackled a variety of skiing-related issues, including co-sponsoring a bill addressing the foreign-worker visa flap and occasionally contacting the Forest Service about ski-resort concerns. Udall also helped loosen restrictions on winter apparel imported from China. “The quota would have crippled U.S. ski and snowboard industry retailers and left consumers out in the cold—literally,” Udall says. “I don’t think the move had much of an effect on people in China, but I know it helped a lot of Americans who love to hit the slopes.”

REPS WHO RIP

Mark Udall isn’t the only member of the Congressional Ski and Snowboard Caucus who carves a few turns. Others include Democrats Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Sam Farr of California and Republican Barbara Cubin of Wyoming. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is also a skier—and owns a condo at Sugar Bowl near Lake Tahoe. But the best-known skiing politico has to be California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a longtime visitor to Mammoth Mountain. The governor appeared in TV ads promoting the state’s skiing last year, which the California Ski Areas Association credits with boosting skier numbers. Check out our gallery of reps who rip here.

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