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Vail Resorts CEO Katz in middle of friendly sparring between Polis, Herbert

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June 12, 2019, 9:09 am
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, left, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert at the Western Governors’ Association meeting in Vail on Monday (David O. Williams photo).

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis kicked off a Q&A with Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz at the annual Western Governors’ Association meeting in Vail on Monday by asking his opinion of proposed legislation called the CORE Act that would create 73,000 acres of new wilderness and the first ever National Historic Landscape at Camp Hale.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, seated to Polis’s left, followed up with a question about how the ski industry can continue to grow given the rigidity of the current environmental regulations dictating the management of federal lands where most ski areas operate.

Polis, a Democrat, is one of the most progressive governors at the conference that runs through Wednesday. Herbert, a Republican, represents one of the most conservative states in the West.

The two shared a good-natured exchange about whose snow is better and the fact the United States Olympic Committee picked Utah over Colorado as a candidate for the 2030 Winter Olympics, which Polis acknowledged have just about the same disapproval rating (88%) in Colorado as approval rating in Utah.

That prompted Herbert to joke about the “the contrast between the western side of the Rockies and eastern side of the Rockies.”

In fact, as Colorado politicians push for more protections for public lands in the White River National Forest and elsewhere in Colorado, their counterparts in Utah have successfully worked with the Trump administration to strip away protections for national monuments like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante in order to encourage more mining and fossil fuel extraction. That divergence led to Colorado stealing the Outdoor Retailer show away from neighboring Utah.

For his part, Katz, whose company owns and operates resorts in both states, stuck to his talking points about the benefits of the overall outdoor recreation industry: nearly $900 billion in annual consumer spending nationwide; $73 billion a year on snow sports; $8.4 billion a year in revenue generated by ski resorts; 59 million skier visits (60% in West) and 7.6 million American jobs.

Without directly taking sides in the “more public lands protection and outdoor recreation” versus “less protection and more resource extraction” argument, Katz made it pretty clear where his company comes down. The greatest challenge to the ski industry, he said, is “first and foremost climate change,” accompanied by weather and snowpack variability.

As for the Polis question on the CORE Act, Katz focused on the Camp Hale aspect, with its preservation of the hallowed training ground of the famed 10th Mountain Division of World War II ski troopers who fought the Nazis and Japanese and returned home to found the ski industry.

“The opportunity is pretty significant,” Katz said. “Certainly within the Colorado community, Camp Hale has always had a very special place, but the national prominence and understanding and the connection that this industry has to its roots is unique, and I don’t think it’s well understood. [The CORE Act] would actually bring more engagement and participation and a better understanding of what the men and women of the military do and how critical it is.”

Then Katz tactfully tackled Herbert’s question about growing the ski industry under the current regulatory structure.

“We believe that the sport does need to grow and we also believe that it should be growing within its current footprint, so it is challenging and probably not wise to start new ski resorts at this point given all the environment challenges that you highlighted,” Katz told Herbert.

The way to do that, he added, is to expand ski terrain within current boundaries and utilize technology and infrastructure upgrades to move people more efficiently within resorts. He also said the ski industry must continue to invest in base area improvements, roads and housing.

Besides climate, Katz cited the additional challenges to the industry of making the sport more accessible to more people; investing in infrastructure to accommodate growth; and workforce and housing shortages.

The Vail Daily then brought up some of those very same topics in a one-on-one interview after the panel discussion with Gov. Polis, who formerly represented the Vail Valley as the congressman for Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District. Here’s that interview conducted by RealVail.com:

VD: Does your family still own a home here?

JP: Yeah, our family bought a place in Vail and 81 I think. We came up as kids. I would have been six years old and now it’s a new generation when we bring our kids up, which we did this last winter too.

VD: So you know the importance of public lands to the area as the longtime congressman and somebody who’s been coming here for a long time. Were you really disappointed that at least a part of your Continental Divide Wilderness bill in what’s now the CORE Act was not included in the natural resources bill that passed earlier this year?

JP: I was thrilled that they actually had a hearing for the CORE Act finally, which is great. It’s been years in the making. Our own director of natural resources, Dan Gibbs, was a witness at the hearing federally. That’s really the first step and it’s really gaining a lot more support every day. We brought it up today in our discussions here at the [Western] Governors [Association], and I think the tie-in into the renewed interest in celebrating our World War II heroes — we just observed the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. Congressman [Ed] Perlmutter and [Jason] Crow attended that along with President [Donald] Trump — and really celebrating our living military legacy here in Eagle County as well by establishing the nation’s very first national and historic landscape at Camp Hale.

VD: Do you think Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner could have done a little more to get part of that passed?

JP: We’d love to see him play more of a role in helping to pass the CORE Act, and I think we really need to speak with one voice in Eagle County and Summit County, which is sort of how strong support is from the business community, from residents, from the ski industry, really from so many stakeholders around the Core Act and preserving not only our military legacy, but also some of our great recreational areas.

VD: With this entire valley surrounded by public lands, it really kind of restricts and limits the amount of private land there is to develop housing. [Vail Resorts CEO] Rob Katz just talked about that. It’s a critical issue, workforce and workforce housing. There are some folks who say there should not be a lot of workforce or middle-income housing built closer into resorts, that it should be pushed down valley as we say. And other people say that’s bad for traffic sprawl, climate change. What’s your thought on that? As a Vail home homeowner, should there be more close-in workforce housing?

JP: I think what everybody agrees on is we absolutely need more housing for the workforce. And so a lot of these things are local decisions. We’re focused on from the state perspective is how can we partner with state-owned lands. So we’re working on a comprehensive inventory of state-owned lands, whether it’s CDOT [Colorado Department of Transportation], State Land Board, and how we can better partner with communities just as I did federally with Lake Hill in Summit County when I was a congressman. We’re looking at partnering with communities around our inventory of state-owned lands to provide additional opportunities for affordable workforce housing.

VD: Do you think that NIMBYism [Not in My Backyard] as one of the biggest hurdles to getting [housing] built?

JP: No, the biggest hurdle is cost and the value of land. So it’s really just a question of where we can partner with communities. There has to be the community will there. That’s a very local discussion as you indicated. It’s really up to communities how they want to zone, what they want to accomplish. But the high cost of land is the single biggest impediment.

VD: We heard Rob Katz just talk about I-70 and the need to make sure that that’s continually invested in. There were some significant money that the legislature came up with in the budget and there could be more with 1257 and 1258 if those are approved by voters. But do you think it’s time for a bigger, broader vote? We haven’t raised the gas tax since the early 90s. Is it time to either ask the people to raise the gas tax or some other funding fix and then also do you think it’s maybe time to start discussing limiting truck traffic during peak ski weekends?

JP: We’ve always been open to discussion about limiting truck traffic during peak hours. With regard to how to fund our roads, the voters recently turned down two proposals last year — one that would have bonded revenue [Prop 109] and one that would have used increased sales tax [Prop 110]. So it’s clear what the voters don’t want. But the question is, what are the voters want to accomplish? Certainly we’re thrilled with the progress we made this session, increasing our initial budget request of $200 million to $300 million in funding for our roads. And we’re exploring with Republican and Democratic leaders additional opportunities to fund the infrastructure we need. We’re starting with a 64-county listening plan with our Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shoshana Lew to really get a new sense of what we need for not only where Colorado is today, but where we’re going to be in five years and 10 years.

VD: CDOT says that they are hundreds of millions short of what they’d really like to do to fix I-70. So we shouldn’t look for anything on the ballot this year but maybe next year?

JP: We’re doing what we can with what we have. I think two measures I would point to you that will help on Highway 70. One is we created a ticketable offense for passing a snowplow in V formation — the cause of numerous accidents that you’ve reported on over the years. The second one is around the use of snow tires if you’re not a four-wheel drive vehicle. Again, another cause of cars that are off the road or unable to move. So we’re hoping to, through better traffic safety, provide some additional help to help the traffic flow quicker through just as we did when we worked for the fire suppression system in Eisenhower Tunnel, which we got federally funded a few years back, decreasing time that that need to be closed.

VD: These are all hitting the local issues that a lot of people really care about up here, but one of the biggest ones that you did a lot in this last legislative session to address is the cost of health care. People on the individual market like me, small businesses are literally getting crushed, having to make decisions between mortgages, reinvesting in their companies. That suite of bills, reinsurance, we know the list. But is there only so much that the state can do up to a point and do the Feds really need to step in here?

JP: Like so many things, our role as a state and as governor with are Republicans and Democrats in our legislature is to do all we can with what we have. And that means, of course, when we’re dealing with our public lands, partnering with the Forest Service, partnering with the BLM, of course understanding ultimately they’re property of the federal government. With health care, we can do a lot. And so we expect rates in the individual market in Eagle County will be reduced 20% to 30% next year and by some accounting even more because of their efforts with the collective that are now being replicated here in Eagle County by a group that’s working on establishing an Eagle County collective.

VD: Shifting gears off of local issues, I’m wondering what you think about the sort of recent ascendancy of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s [presidential] campaign — the mayor of South Bend [Indiana]. We had some ugly incidents here in Eagle last year — some homophobic bumper stickers aimed at your campaign. It’s just unfortunate, obviously, but you wound up winning Eagle County by a wide margin, you won the state by a wide margin — the first openly gay governor in the nation. Do you think the country’s ready for an openly gay president?

JP: I think we have a lot of great candidates and I’m friends with a number of them. I know Pete. I worked with [former Texas Rep.] Beto O’Rourke in Congress for many years of work. I’ve worked with Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren. Obviously, I know [Former Colorado Gov.] John Hickenlooper and [Colorado Sen.] Michael Bennett very well, and they’re dear friends. So I think there’s a lot of great candidates. We moved Colorado’s primary date up to Super Tuesday so Colorado voters will have an opportunity to have their say in the nomination of both major parties for president. With Mayor Pete I think his biggest issue is that his last name is difficult to pronounce. So people have to learn to pronounce his last name and he obviously has a great legacy of service to our country as a decorated soldier as well.

VD: But can you put his campaign in the context of this being Gay Pride Month and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall? Does it seem as if the country has turned a corner?

JP: There’s been tremendous progress in civil rights. If you at the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Brown vs. The Board of Education, to Barack Obama, the first African American president, if you look at Stonewall, now the first gay governor of a state, the opportunity to elect several members of the Senate that are gay — Tammy Baldwin [of Wisconsin] and Sen. [Kyrsten] Sinema [of Arizona]. There’s less of a barrier than ever before and I think Americans judge people on what are their plans for the country, how you can improve their lives and the content of your character.

VD: But you’ve got to stick to the hometown [candidates] at this point?

JP: I’m friends with a number of folks and I think it’s great to have Coloradans running because we’ve never had a president who was from Colorado. We’ve had several run — Tom Tancredo, Gary Hart — and now we have not one, but we have two running in the same year. So at least they’ll provide a voice for Colorado issues on the national stage.

VD: And then you were one of the first members of Congress to vote to begin an impeachment probe into Donald Trump. [2nd Congressional Rep.] Joe Neguse, who won your seat [in Congress], has now come around to that as well. If you were still in Congress, what would you be saying to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi right now?

JP: Well look, they need his full cooperation in their hearings, responses to subpoenas. I understand there was an agreement reached I think this morning between the chair of the Judiciary Committee [Rep. Jerrold Nadler] and the Attorney General [William Barr]. So I think it’s a question of we want to know what the facts are, or how directly was the president implicated in the damaging reports of the special counsel [Robert Mueller] and making sure that people are fully answerable. They should have an open mind, but I think proceeding with a subpoenas and the investigation is important because the American people deserve the truth.

VD: Bring it back to local politics. You managed to [pass] a very progressive agenda on many fronts, energy, health care, some of the stuff we’ve already talked about. There’s been a state Republican backlash in the form of recalls, although only two so far that have actually submitted petitions. I’m wondering what your overall take is on that and especially when it comes to [state Rep.] Tom Sullivan, who basically did what he ran on and that was the red flag bill, which our police chief here in Vail supports and our sheriff here opposes. Very controversial obviously, but what do you think about the recall politics?

JP: Well, obviously we were very excited. We got free full-day kindergarten done this legislative session. I visited Avon elementary a few months ago to highlight the importance of not only kindergarten but also additional preschool slots. We freed up over 5,100 preschool slots across Colorado and a kindergarten will be free full day across our state. On the big issues, Democrats and Republicans worked together on most of the health care [bills], whether it was reinsurance, transparency. These were all bipartisan efforts. Republicans and Democrats supported them – same with full-day kindergarten. And I think it’s a really showed what we can do when we work together. Obviously I support Tom Sullivan and, as you indicated, he certainly is following through on what he ran on and I’m confident that if it does come to a vote, the people will honor that he kept his word and did what he said he was going to do. [On Tuesday, the group leading the Sullivan recall reportedly ended that campaign.]

VD: What about sheriffs who said they will not enforce the red flag bill, which is not the case here locally?

JP: There’s a lot of laws on the books and obviously we trust our law enforcement professionals to do their job without prejudice and if they want to become lawmakers they are welcome to run for other offices, but as professional sheriffs and law enforcement officials, I’m highly confident in their ability to do their job well.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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