Not a Winter Wonderland: A Steep Slope of Inequality in Ski Resorts
“I don’t think he speaks English,” an employee at the Shore Lodge resort hotel in McCall, Idaho, said to me. She gave an apologetic smile, whispering as if her words were incongruous with the opulence of Shore Lodge. The employee, who worked in guest services, was referring to a janitor to my left, who was silently sweeping the floor beside the majestic view of Lake Payette.
Shore Lodge was the last stop on my three-day foray into McCall, a ski resort town two hours north of my hometown, Boise. I had traveled with my family over winter break to enjoy McCall’s abundance of winter recreation: skiing, snowmobiling, snow tubing, ice skating, and relaxing in hot springs. McCall, a small ski resort town often compared to an early version of the more glamorous Sun Valley, was what locals like to call a “hidden gem”— known to Idahoans like me, but not to many others.
Shore Lodge, described to me as the “anchor” of McCall, has a subdued extravagance: The exterior is rustic and adorned with Christmas decorations; the lobby, with warm light illuminating its cabin-like architecture, faces the rippling vastness of Lake Payette. In many ways, Shore Lodge mirrors the cozy luxury of McCall as a whole.
Yet, the quiet presence of Shore Lodge’s immigrant workforce—the first time I had seen immigrants at all in McCall—illustrated the less cheerful side of the town, and it epitomized the contradictory identity of ski resort towns more generally. Behind the natural beauty and manufactured glitz lie uncomfortable realities: Immigrant communities face dramatic inequality, housing costs are exorbitant, and mental health issues are swept under the rug.
The invisibility of immigrants is not exclusive to McCall. Ski resort towns in the U.S. have become what sociologists Patrick Carr, Daniel Lichter, and Maria Kefalas have termed “Hispanic boomtowns.” These are small towns that have witnessed an influx of immigrants from Central and South America; in the Jackson, Wyoming ski resort town, for example, approximately 30 percent of people are Hispanic. In McCall, the Hispanic population has increased by more than 200 percent over the last decade, although Hispanics still represent a small share of the population. Even as the number of immigrants has increased in ski resort communities, their presence sometimes remains understated.
“When you visit a resort town in Colorado or the Mountain West, it’s clear that there are many people from immigrant communities who are keeping the restaurants and ski shops and all the other facilities in town,” said Abraham Nussbaum, the chief education officer at Denver Health, in an interview with The Politic. He added that immigrants “often are living in sort of secluded or hidden part of town, in very close quarters.”
David Pellow, the Dehlsen Chair of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of The Slums of Aspen, has extensively researched immigrants in ski resort communities. In an interview with The Politic, he first clarified that the immigrant experience is far from homogenous.
“There’s a diversity of experiences and viewpoints within immigrant communities,” said Pellow.
Some immigrants move to the mountains to escape conflict or poverty in their home countries; others search for the classic offerings of a ski resort town: clean air, outdoor recreation, small town serenity.
Considering the multiplicity of immigrant experiences, Pellow acknowledged that many immigrants—particularly those who are undocumented—do not fully enjoy the advertised luxury of ski resorts.
“Life for [many immigrants] is fundamentally different than a tourist or wealthy resident,” Pellow explained.
Pellow recalled a “poignant” moment interviewing a Mexican immigrant who worked in Aspen, Colorado, a popular ski resort city. When asked about the Aspen Mountains, he said tourists raved about the environment, calling it a “refreshing weekend away from Wall Street.” In that particular interview, though, the Mexican immigrant simply replied, “What mountains?” For this immigrant, Pellow reflected, working in Aspen had little to do with the scenery so venerated by other tourists; it was a job.
“Immigrants are there to work and service as the engine of the local economy, and so central to that society and economy, and yet despised. And that’s the narrative we see nationally as well,” Pellow said.
As an example, he referenced a 1999 Aspen City Council resolution calling for restricted immigration. The official purpose of the resolution was to control population growth and its ensuing ecological harms.
But immigrant workers are essential contributors to ski resort towns. “The evidence is very clear that resort communities, like much of America, are powered by immigrants who work often very challenging jobs for limited pay and limited social safety nets,” Pellow explained.
One study from the Colorado Fiscal Institute found that Hispanic populations were more likely to hold low-wage jobs in Colorado than other demographic groups.
High housing costs in areas surrounding exclusive ski resorts further exacerbate inequality for these workers.
“What we see in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley is what we see in other parts of the country and the world,” Pellow explained, “where low-wage earning residents and immigrants have to pool their resources. Many people have to live under a single roof to make ends meet and pay rent.”
For McCall residents with less affluent backgrounds, securing affordable housing is the most pressing issue. Anna Loseki works at Activity Barn, a tubing company in McCall. Loseki said one of the difficulties of working in McCall was “just trying to find housing that’s affordable, especially working here, which is not the best pay.”
Loseki lives in Cascade in her grandmother’s house.
“Lower income houses are really, really hard to find, especially in a place that is convenient to get to work in town,” Loseki said, noting that she had to drive about 45 minutes each day for work.
Cindy Jones and her coworker Lolo Nelson are agents at the McCall Real Estate Company. According to Nelson, long commutes are a common response to prohibitive housing costs.
“[Housing costs are] definitely a problem for the workforce,” Nelson noted. “And a lot of people drive from Council or even Cascade to work here.” Council, Idaho, is a 50-minute drive from McCall. Cascade is 40 minutes away.
TJ Brady, another employee at Shore Lodge in guest services, told me, “Housing is the biggest obstacle. There’s not a shortage of jobs, just affordable housing.”
As much as he loves the outdoors, without a special employee housing program offered by Shore Lodge, Brady isn’t sure he will be staying in McCall.
“Rentals are sky high,” he said.
“We’ve always been a higher price point, that’s for sure, because we are a resort town,” Jones remarked. “During the boom, our prices were higher than homes in Boise…in McCall proper you have to be at least 200, 250 [thousand dollars]. There’s not too much here for under two [hundred thousand dollars].” According to Jones, some McCall residents afford the high housing costs by taking multiple jobs.
The prohibitive housing costs can deter potential workers from moving to McCall, resulting in a shortage of labor. “There are several businesses that can’t be open because they don’t have enough help,” she said.
But the majority of people living in McCall are short-term residents.
“McCall is mostly a second home market,” Nelson said. “Some are permanent residents, but most are buying a second home.”
“Or a third,” Jones added, chuckling.
Many second homeowners are what Jones calls “town shoppers.”
“We see a lot of people that are retiring. They are town shoppers. They want a smaller town, they want a place with recreation, clean air, clean water,” she said.”So that drives our community.” Jones saw the combination of small town familiarity and natural beauty drawing wealthier residents to McCall.
“I think what people with money like about McCall is that it’s quiet money,” Jones said. “It’s not mansions, the big star power. People that are well-known like that.”
McCall is not the only resort community with such dramatic disparities of wealth. Other glitzy resorts, like Jackson Hole, are home to the highest rates of income inequality in the U.S.
Although Jones and Nelson noted that the McCall City Council was taking steps, including affordable housing measures, to reduce inequality, Pellow argued that there were no simple solutions.
“What makes these resorts so ecologically unsustainable is the housing that is built to support the tourist economy,” he said.
“They pollute the landscape, they pollute the water, they require the amplification on the fossil fuel economy, placing all sorts of pressures on the local ecosystem and thriving off of local housing values and prices. It’s the tourist economy that increases the ability of outsiders who are wealthy to come in and enjoy themselves, and conversely, decreases the ability of locals to find places that are livable and affordable,” he explained.
Along with housing inequality, ski resort communities are afflicted with disproportionately high rates of mental illness and suicide; McCall, along with other ski resorts, resides in what is known as the “Suicide Belt.” Perry Renshaw, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine, noted, “We saw this great map of suicides across the United States, and the Rocky Mountain states line up, reflecting much higher rates of suicide in the Rocky Mountain states.”
In 2015, Idaho’s suicide rate was the fifth-highest in the country, 57 percent higher than the national average. Blaine County, which houses the famed Sun Valley Resort, has a suicide rate 17 percent higher than Idaho’s. Ski resorts across the Rocky Mountains tell a similar story: Suicide rates from Aspen, Salt Lake County (with ski resorts in Alta and Snowbird), and Telluride are as high as six times the national average.
Nussbaum from Denver Health noted a range of factors that contribute to high rates of mental illness in ski resort communities.
First, economic inequality aggravates the obstacles other rural communities traditionally face. “The challenges for resort towns, especially in the Mountain West, is that they are in rural communities that have all of the usual challenges of rural communities, with the additional challenge that the cost of living in those towns is prohibitively expensive,” Nussbaum said.
Low social cohesion is a factor as well. While several McCall residents commented on the beauty of small town culture, Nussbaum noted its isolation.
“Resort communities have decreased civic third spaces: places like churches or synagogues or other places of worship. They tend to have decreased fraternal organization. There aren’t as many places for people to interact that might build up the community and prevent some of the serious mental health concerns that we see being prevalent in resort towns,” Nussbaum explained.
Even though social activities in McCall can revolve around the outdoors, Loseki believes they were insufficient in creating a larger sense of community. “It’s not like a wine tasting event, which if you do that, you meet more people. Hiking is like a solo group. You stay in your group,” she said.
Loseki also commented on the difficulty of forming community in McCall. “I think it can be challenging, especially as a young adult, to make friends or have that social life, because there’s not a whole lot to do. Especially if you’re new, I can’t imagine coming in. There is that tight-knit community and then coming in as an outsider, there’s not a whole lot of opportunities to insert yourself in the community.”
But according to Jones and Nelson, McCall’s small town charm is what sets it apart. “Our community is great. You can’t go to the grocery store without seeing someone you know. And you can’t not love that small town feeling,” Jones smiled.
What’s more, Renshaw, of the University of Utah, argued that altitude changes could have an effect on mental health. According to Renshaw, as altitude increases, serotonin production decreases. Crucial steps in the pathway for serotonin production require oxygen, which decreases in higher altitudes. Indeed, the link between serotonin and mental health is well studied: Less serotonin correlates with greater rates of depression and suicide.
Although some have criticized Renshaw’s studies as overly simplistic, Renshaw acknowledged that suicide is often due to myriad variables. Still, he isolated altitude as a risk factor. “We have done many analyses, and even when you account for other variables, altitude still pops up as a risk factor for suicide. In the last five years, [case studies from] Austria, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Peru, South Korea…show the exact same thing. You go up in altitude, suicide and depression go up.”
My most vivid memory of McCall was the drive: Along the road, endless soaring trees and pristine white snow formed a backdrop of silent serenity. Was this the McCall everyone else saw? And after I visited, I wondered, should this be the McCall we see?
Uncovering the McCall that strayed from its idyllic imagery was a laborious process of reading between blurred lines. Most people I spoke to gushed over the friendliness of the community, of enjoying the great outdoors, of their dreams of building a family in McCall.
One journalist I spoke to asked me why I chose to focus on McCall, when it was not as famous or renowned as other ski resorts, the inequalities not as drastic, and the information not as widely available. Undoubtedly, McCall is not Jackson Hole or Vail or even Sun Valley.
But disregarding McCall seemed worse. Simply because the disparities and difficulties smaller communities face are not always obvious does not mean the problems do not exist. If few knew McCall existed at all, even fewer would believe that McCall was less than paradise. And to me, this brand of willful ignorance is also an act of forgetting, dangerously and unjustifiably so.