Whether you realize it or not, Summit County was packaged and sold to you. You — or your parents or grandparents — bought into the Colorado mountains as the place to vacation, or to live like you’re on vacation.
That marketing and its effects on tourism and the environmental movement form the basis of William Philpott’s book “Vacationland: Tourism and Environment in the Colorado High Country.”
Philpott, 44, a University of Denver history professor, spent about 15 years on the book, which was released July 2013. Its chapters challenge assumptions held by visitors and longtime locals alike about what is natural.
The book could help cure the collective memory loss that forces mountain communities to revisit the same old issues again and again.
Philpott grew up in the Denver suburbs raised on his parents’ stories of how the area changed.
The book began in the late 1990s as his Ph.D. dissertation. Though he lived out of state for about 20 years, teaching in the Midwest, he returned often to visit family and spend whole summers researching. He pored over town files, combed library archives, dug through old issues of the Summit County Journal.
He wanted to learn: Why does the High Country look that way? What made people care so much about the environment?
In the end, he stuffed three and a half file cabinets with records. The process helped him better understand his parents and stay connected to his roots.
At times Philpott’s writing seems long-winded — reminiscent of the fast, passionate way he talks about his favorite subjects. And it’s a bit redundant — he is a teacher after all, used to emphasizing points for his students. But don’t be put off by that or the book’s size. Of its 497 pages, the index alone is 38 pages, and a full third of the book is bibliography.
Though scholarly in his process, Philpott writes in a conversational, often humorous tone, and he peppers the pages with old photos, vintage postcards and maps of highway routes and ski areas.
CONSUMERISM, TOURISM AND ENVIRONMENTALISM
Throughout the book, Philpott dispels myths like that of the primordial forest. Native Americans manipulated the land to suit their needs for thousands of years. White settlers arrived, miners turned creeks upside down and tourism promoters moved rivers and rocks to shape roads.
“It’s not just: A place is beautiful, so people come here,” he said. “It’s conscious decisions.”
In the book, he details how tourism evolved and describes quirky real-life characters, including a ridiculous number of men named Walter who together shaped Aspen as we know it.
Consumerism guided Colorado’s tourism campaigns, which were successful “probably beyond the wildest dreams of the people promoting these places,” Philpott said.
He then dives into the fight over Interstate 70, exploring what might have happened if it had taken this route or that one or wasn’t built through the mountains at all.
In Summit, he focuses on protecting Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, which stopped I-70 from blasting through it. That, he says, was the “first big battle and first big triumph for the environmental groups,” influencing a movement all over Colorado, the country and the world.
Environmentalism, he writes, was the political movement that grew out of postwar generations tying their identities to these packaged places.
On ski area summer expansions: Tourism in the High Country began with summer recreation. Philpott says people in the 1940s and ’50s never dreamed winter sports would dominate tourist traffic.
On Forest Service clear-cuts: The federal agency’s roots are in resource extraction, especially logging. “The most noble use of the forest was cutting trees,” he says. But foresters don’t cut willy-nilly; they use their knowledge about how to keep forests regenerating. Tourism and recreation were added later, often contradicting older directives.
On politics: “Being a federal official right now must be really hard,” he says. “We tend not to trust our experts in today’s political culture.” Experts in the ’50s and ’60s were respected to the point of having too much power and not enough accountability or public input. Environmentalism was born out of that faith in experts and science. Activists thought they could solve problems if only they could fund the right research. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, he said, with expertise viewed with too much cynicism.
On wilderness areas: Now, with fewer and smaller wilderness areas designated than in decades past, Philpott calls them “a remarkable political commitment to make,” with so many resistant to government orders like no development. Focusing on wilderness distracts and misleads those who think environmentalists only want to keep people out, he says, reinforcing the idea of humans as separate from environment. “The real challenge is to accept and embrace our ecological place in nature.”
CONCERN, HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
“We tend to think of the way things are now as how they’ll always be,” Philpott says.
But tourism economies in the High Country depend on certain climate conditions and a culture of cheap oil. If bears or mountain lions pose more danger to humans because of changing habitat or if wildfires become more frequent, people won’t want to live here.
“We as a country, frankly, we don’t like to admit ecological limits,” he says, adding that American culture thinks technology can solve ecological problems, even as it creates them.
The environmental movement focused too much on certain places, he writes, and not enough on the connections that tied everything together.
Philpott remains optimistic, though, because the movement made people care.
Because the High Country was sold as their playground, people all over Colorado care about what happens to the mountain ecosystems. And if people can understand the decisions that shaped where they live, they can choose to make new decisions to shape the future in ways that better agree with their values.
“There’s something empowering and hopeful about that,” he says.
After giving readers a solid historical foundation, Philpott ends the book by asking readers: What will happen if conditions change? If “vacationlands” become less desirable, will the environmental sensibilities they inspired become obsolete? If consumerism doesn’t guide us, what will?
Consumerism shaped Colorado’s tourism campaigns, which were successful “probably beyond the wildest dreams of the people promoting these places.”