It’s not just ski resorts that are white. That’s why the snow sports, outdoor industries seek to diversify

A crowd of people prepare to hit the trails outside of Thunderhead Lodge at Steamboat Resort on Friday.
Derek Maiolo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Ski resorts are white. Even the people who visit and work there are predominately white.

According to data from the National Ski Areas Association, 88.2% of visitors to ski areas during the 2019-20 season were white, while just 1.8% were Black. That’s a huge gap between participation and the actual population of Blacks in the U.S., which is estimated to be 13.4%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“There’s a long history of (ski areas) being white and affluent, and they still are,” David Perry, vice president of environmental, social and governance at Alterra Mountain Co., the parent company of Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. “We can lean back and say, ‘Well, historically, it’s always been primarily white and affluent,’ but that’s yesterday, that’s history. There’s no reason that skiing, snowboarding and mountain recreation shouldn’t be completely diversified.”

Henri Rivers, president of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, said after 50 years of skiing, he doesn’t feel isolated or unwanted on the mountain, but he wouldn’t be surprised if newcomers to the sport felt that way.

“What I still get now is, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could ski that well,’” he said. “My answer is, ‘You don’t know me. How would you know how I ski?’ They’ll make that blanket comment like ‘Oh, you’re a black guy. I didn’t think you could ski that well.’ They are far and few between for me. We just got to be more open and more receptive to people of color all around.”

Perry is in charge of creating Alterra’s plan to increase diversity among its ski areas’ employees and visitors. The first step includes creating a baseline and determining the demographics of the company’s employees. Each resort within Alterra collects data differently, so there are no company-wide statistics available. 

Ski Corp. has an optional employee survey that about 75% of the workforce answers. Selecting race or ethnicity is optional, so the numbers don’t accurately reflect the demographics of the resort’s employees.

The next step involves creating an advisory team composed of people from all segments of the company, including senior executives, marketing team members and human resources personnel. Next, comes outreach — a plan that is still in its early stages. Perry hopes to build relationships with groups similar to the National Brotherhood of Skiers to help attract more diverse guests and employees.

“None of (the rest) will work unless people actually come and feel at home and feel welcomed and see people like them, people of color, ski school instructors that look like them, speak their language and have backgrounds like them,” Perry said. 

Sarah Jones, Ski Corp.’s director of sustainability and community engagement, is leading Steamboat Resort’s plan to diversify the makeup of its workforce and visitors. She said Steamboat is already welcoming but needs to take the next step. 

“Welcoming can’t just be friendly,” she said. “Being welcoming has to be, we have people who look like you. There are brown and Black faces. Diversity is way more than ethnicity or race, but that’s a place to start.”

Steamboat doesn’t have specific outreach plans in place yet but wants to recruit a staff that is more representative of the nation, rather than just the Routt County community. 

“If you look at our employees, they would be representative of our community,” Jones said. “But if we want to be super welcoming and inclusive, we have to be proactive, so beyond just being representative of our community.”

Green places are white spaces

The snow-covered peaks of ski resorts aren’t the only places where diversity is lacking. Public lands suffer in a similar way, as a disproportionate number of users are white. 

In 2009, the National Park Service spoke with more than 4,000 people by phone to conduct the National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public. The survey aimed to find out who visited parks, what they did while visiting and why people don’t visit more often, or at all. 

African Americans and Hispanics made up 12% and 13% of the survey sample, respectively, but only 7% and 9% of visitors. Among African American visitors and non-visitors (classified as people who had not visited in the past two years), the main reason they cited for not visiting, was, “I just don’t know that much about NPS units.” The cost of lodging and food at NPS units was another major reason for not visiting more for all races and ethnicities and was the most popular reason for not visiting more often among Hispanic visitors and non-visitors.

“I think the intent, years ago, was to exclude people of color, African Americans, Latinos, Chinese,” Rivers said. “When the policies were laid out for national parks and national areas … they were exclusive of people of color. They did not want to entertain us. John Muir wasn’t laying out all these great parks so African Americans can come and join. That’s where it started. It’s always been policy.”

Rivers used Robert Moses State Park in New York, a beachfront park on Long Island that was built in 1908 with discrimination in mind, as an example.

“They made parkways, so that buses couldn’t travel on parkways. Instead of it taking 45 minutes to get from Brooklyn or Queens to get to the beaches, it would take you two hours,” Rivers said. “You had to go a roundabout detour. They put these things in place to exclude you from day one.”

The National Forest Service performed a survey similar to the one conducted by the NPS and found that 95.2% of national forest visits between 2014 and 2018 were by people who identified as white. Spanish, Hispanics and Latinos made up the next greatest percentage, accounting for 6.3% of visitors.

The 2019 Outdoor Participation Report found there was a large gap between the diversity of outdoor participants and the diversity of the U.S. population across many outdoor activities and sports.

Caucasians made up 73.7 % of outdoor participants, with Hispanics making up the next-largest group with 10.7%. After a surge in outdoor participation population in 2016 and 2017, African American outdoor participation rates dropped by 3.4 % from 2017 to 2018. 

Also, while hiking was reported as the most popular outdoor activity for Caucasians, running, jogging and trail running was the most popular category among African Americans, Hispanics and Asians. 

Closing the gap

While the recent swell of protests and calls to action for social justice have left some companies and organizations wondering what they can do better, there are already many that have been working for years to make the outdoor industry more inclusive. 

Every Wednesday in January, the ACE — Achieving, Collaborating, Exploring — program for emerging bilinguals brought 28 Soda Creek Elementary students to the historic Howelsen Hill Ski Area. Steamboat Ski & Bike Kare provided rental gear, and the operating expenses were sponsored by Alpine Bank. 

The Ski Town USA initiative is another program that brings second-graders to Howelsen Hill and exposes them to a new sport in a safe environment with their teachers and adults they already trust and know well. 

Both expose kids of all abilities, skin colors and economic backgrounds to a sport they might not otherwise have the chance to try. 

“That’s what’s behind both of those community programs — to cast a wider net and give experiences to all kids,” said Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Executive Director Sarah Floyd. “That’s the backbone of those programs.”

At the national level, Outdoor Afro is a network of groups in more than 30 states that connects thousands of individuals, primarily Black people, to the outdoors and conservation. Storm Peak Brewery gave the funds raised from the sales of its Black is Beautiful Stout to Outdoor Afro. 

Steamboat Resort has partnered with the National Brotherhood of Skiers for years, hosting the 2019 Summit on its trademark Champagne powder. The National Brotherhood of Skiers has been working to get more Black people on the slopes since its inception in 1973 in Aspen. There were 13 founding clubs, including the Slippers-N-Sliders Ski Club based in Denver. Now, there are 55 clubs representing a membership of 3,500 skiers. Not only does it create a community for existing Black skiers, but NBS has a youth program that introduces the sport to kids who may have otherwise never skied. 

Additionally, the NBS financially supports Black athletes with the goal of seeing one of them on the podium at an international or ideally, an Olympic event, one day.

To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.

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