Thursday, March 3, 2011

New model for ski resort development emerges in Alaska

This article By Tom Winter outlines our partner, Mountain Rider's Alliance's first project...

The mountain is nothing.

Well, it is something — a mass of rock and ice with scattered alder bushes and some evergreens. But the small sub-peak is dwarfed by its Alaskan neighbors. It seems a strange place for a ski area. The closest large population base is Anchorage, nearly two hours away. There’s no private land to develop into a quaint base village or multi-million dollar vacation homes. There’s nothing here but the wind, the wind that blows the snow in swirls and drifts as we climb higher to the top of this place, a place that, with a lot of hard work and some gumption will become an environ mentally sustainable ski area that’s cooperatively owned.

Last September, Boulder Weekly scored an exclusive interview with a visionary who sought to change the way the resort industry worked. Jamie Schectman, founder of the Mountain Rider’s Alliance (MRA), riffed to the Weekly on monster second homes at ski resorts, a lack of concern for the community and on wind power. His was a dream of community-owned ski areas, focused on the riding and skiing experience, with profits put back into that experience. Wind, solar and microhydro power would ensure that these small resorts remained sustainable. Community ownership and involvement would ensure that they remained focused on core values and benefitted the surrounding towns.

Now, less than a year from when we last spoke to Schectman, his dream of creating such a ski area has taken a giant step closer with the announcement of the MRA’s first project, Manitoba Mountain, Alaska. Located at Mile 49 on the Seward Highway, the project is focused on reviving the Historic Manitoba Ski Area and the Glacier Ski Lodge. This small ski area on the Kenai Peninsula operated from 1941 to 1959, and is 90 minutes from Anchorage. With a base elevation of 1,250 feet, and located in the Chugach Mountains, Manitoba receives an estimated 350-550 inches of snow annually.
We’re climbing the mountain in the tracks of Dave Scanlan. A resident of nearby Hope, Scanlan has been named the project manager for the reinvented Manitoba Mountain. It’s hard to see what he’s excited about until we reach the top.

“Here’s where we’ll put the backcountry access gate,” says Scanlan, with a wave of a ski pole.

Suddenly, through a break in the swirling snow, we see why someone would want to put a lift up here. The view opens, and smack dab in front of us are acres and acres and acres of steep powder skiing terrain, the kind of stuff that is usually accessed via helicopters in Alaska. But here, you’ll be able to exit a gate and head out into the wilderness, no heli required. It’s an audacious and bold plan, and one that for those in our group will take shape over the next few days as we hike and ski around Manitoba Mountain under the leadership of Scanlan, and as we spend evenings drinking beers in front of a fire, listening to Schectman describe the project.

There are plenty of reasons to go skiing on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Developed ski areas are not one of them. The Chugach Mountains offer serious skiers and snowboarders the rare combination of deep and stable snowpack plastered on nearly vertical peaks. It’s all hike-to terrain, and it’s committed. Few venture here in winter. While Manitoba itself won’t offer up this kind of terrain — the mountain as envisioned is primarily beginner and intermediate terrain with a small in-bounds expert sector — the project will offer access. At build-out, the mountain will feature three low-impact surface lifts, one that will top out on the 3,702-foot Mount Manitoba. These lifts will allow locals to teach kids and carve up a couple of groomers. But those who come up from the lower 48 won’t be interested in skiing with the kids or sliding on groomers. No, they’ll want to play with the big boys in the 10,000-plus acres of he-man terrain that will be accessible via the backcountry gate at the top of Manitoba.

“This project is designed to be small on infrastructure and big on mountain,” says Schectman.

“The proposed lifts are designed to give riders supreme access to and from world-class, high-angle backcountry terrain, while at the same time providing an excellent beginner, intermediate and advanced inbounds skiing experience.”

And the project won’t stop there.

Nordic trails, snowshoeing, dogsledding and other trails will be built. In addition, another local group, the Alaska Hut Association, is proposing a high alpine route which will include the ski area.

“We’d like to have three or four huts in the area,” says the association’s Charlie Barnwell, who envisions an Alaskan “Haute Route” experience.

But the real impetus for the project, says Scanlan, is the fact that times are tough on the Kenai Peninsula.

“There are only five full-time jobs available right now in Hope,” says Scanlan. “We have a decent summer business with tourism, but in the winter, it becomes very difficult for families to make it. They’re moving away. Schools are closing, and we need to do something about it.”

That something is building, with the help of the MRA, a community-owned ski area that will not only bring opportunity to locals, but also provide a counterweight to the summer season.

“The MRA believes a ski area should service the immediate and surrounding communities,” says Schectman, who points out that the development model for Manitoba Mountain is radically different from recent high-dollar projects.

Will Manitoba become a reality?

A recent community meeting held in Girdwood and chaired by Scanlan showed that some, at least, are ready to roll up their sleeves and help start installing the lifts tomorrow. But a lengthy permitting process remains, and those involved with the project have yet to decide on how to structure the cooperative ownership model for Manitoba.

Regardless, the next time you’re stuck in I-70 traffic heading to your ski area of choice, think how you might build your own ski area, and how you’d operate it. Would it be to sell as many tickets and season passes as possible? Would you develop million-dollar skiin ski-out condos? Would it be to create opportunities for locals? Or would it be a private powder stash for you and your friends? Over the next few years, the skiers on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula will try to answer that question for themselves.

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