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Some resort towns in the Rocky Mountain West are at risk of being 'loved to death'

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park outside of Moab. The town uses lodging taxes to offset tourism impacts.
Molly Marcello
Delicate Arch in Arches National Park outside of Moab. The town uses lodging taxes to offset tourism impacts.

A new report from Headwaters Economics outlines how many towns in the Rocky Mountain West with natural attractions are at risk of being 'loved to death' as people flock there.

Maeve Conran speaks with reporter Nick Bowlin who writes about it in High Country News.

Maeve Conran: In your latest article in High Country News, you talk about how some resort towns in the American West, around the Rocky Mountain Region, are essentially at risk of being loved to death.

And this is based on a report that was released recently by Headwaters Economics based out of Montana.

And there's a term in there that I really want to dig into that really gets to the heart of what the issue is, and it's called the amenity trap.

Tell us what that means and how that is playing out in some of these western communities.

Nick Bowlin: Sure. The amenity trap, as Headwaters defines it is, they kind of led it with a great quote, so this is their language, is "the paradox of a place with natural attractions that make it a great place to live, but also threaten it with being loved to death."

This report is focusing on tourism dependent communities.

Listeners will probably be familiar with one, but you know, Bozeman, Montana, Moab, a lot of the ski towns in Colorado.

And basically the report lays out that this is a recognizable pattern across tourism dependent communities in the west, and the pattern is basically, increased visitation leads to budget challenges for the local government because of infrastructure shortages, or roads start crumbling because of so many cars coming in.

It leads to acute housing shortages when kind of exacerbated by the pandemic, well-to-do people, remote workers pour into an area, drive up housing prices, and reduce housing stock.

Anyone who doesn't have a certain amount of money, finds it difficult to live there.

I mean, it also kind of refers to dependence on one sort of economic activity, which is basically providing amenities for visitors, for second homeowners, for people visiting the area for its natural beauty.

And it traps you into this economy where the only sorts of jobs available to locals are bartending, ski lifts, you know, kind of seasonal work that is providing an amenity.

And this creates. Income inequality, it creates the budget shortfall, as we talked about.

It makes them kind of singularly dependent on this one sort of thing.

And so one of the examples they brought up is the flooding outside of Yellowstone National Park last year, Gardiner, Montana saw 92% reduction in lodging revenue from a local lodging tax.

This is something the report discussed.

So, you know, something happens from a natural disaster and these local communities find themselves with no cash on hand.

Maeve Conran: The report itself concludes that each community is going to need to build its own set of solutions, but also tapping into what's available regionally and and federally as well.

And you talk about, in the article, some communities that have come up with solutions like Durango, limits on short-term rentals, Moab, with some taxing on tourism lodging to help with some of the infrastructure.

Take us through what you have seen around the region where communities are trying to identify some solutions.

Nick Bowlin: Sure. So I think it's probably fair to say from the outset that there hasn't been a place that's been able to escape what they call the amenity trap.

The intensity of these forces of tourism and luxury real estate and, you know, the trickle down effects for housing and wages and you know, what it does to kind of the local workforce.

No one's really been able to escape that, but the report does lay out some places that have been trying interesting things.

So on housing specifically, you know, they talk about Breckenridge, Big Sky, Montana, Vail, Colorado, all have some form of deed restricted housing.

Where a property's it's market value is capped for kind of first time buyers.

Sometimes they, they dictate that the owner or the renter, if the owner chooses to rent, they have to be a worker in the local community.

It can't go to an Airbnb or, you know, a seasonal resident that's restricted in the deed on the house.

And then sometimes the deed is restricted for its resale value, so you can't buy the house under a deed restricted program and then sell it for an enormous amount of money.

It varies place to place, but it's basically trying to create a local stock of affordable houses that that local workers can own.

You mentioned Durango, capping Airbnb and VRBO, the amount of properties that can be short-term rentals in a community.

There was an interesting project in Norwood, Colorado, which is outside of Telluride, where modular homes were built and they were intended for county residents in the school district that made below a certain, you know, income threshold.

And the median price in that county was $2 million in for a home in 2022, and these houses were selling for, at most, about $420,000.

So it basically requires that local governments build housing or work with maybe local nonprofits or a housing trust to set aside land, you know, use state programs, donors, whatever, to set aside housing and land that's like specifically for the local workforce.

The issue is that like the Norwood development's 24 units, if thousands of people are struggling to find housing, that's sort of a drop in the bucket.

Maeve Conran: It seems that it's a very specific form of gentrification that's playing out in these communities because in addition to the rising cost of housing, I mean, of course you have the entire local economy that's transforming, moving towards amenities, very often moving away from extractive industries, so there's a lot of change going on.

Now you yourself, you're based in Gunnison.

A lot of these dynamics are playing out there.

You have a huge ranching community, of course then you have a ski town like Cresta Butte.

Take us through what you have observed, where you actually live and what that means for your community.

Nick Bowlin: That phrase rural gentrification pretty accurately describes what's happening in a lot of these places, and I know that there's been a lot of good writing and research on how that's playing out specifically in rural areas that have become kind of desirable.

So yeah, I live in, in Gunnison, Colorado, so it's on the Western Slope and it's about 35 miles south of Crested Butte, one of the kind of big ski towns.

To give an example, like you said about this kind of economic transition, Headwaters did a study, Headwaters does great stuff, on Gunnison County.

It was before the pandemic, 2018 maybe, but it could pinpoint in the 1970s when the last mines in Crested Butte closed, and you could see wages which had been going up and basically tracking with inflation basically stagnate in the county.

So they could pinpoint when the last kind of, you know, industrial jobs which tend to pay really well, say what you will about mining, left the county.

And it had basically transitioned to an amenities economy.

In the eighties, we start getting flights to the local airport from Houston and Dallas and kind of warm weather places where people are coming in to fish for trout in the summer, ski in the winter.

And at the same time, they overlaid that kind of wage stagnation with investment income.

So basically, Gunnison County went from a place where people were making money off of wages taken in, to a place where people money were making money off of passive investments, whether that's stock or from owning investment properties, you know, it could be all sorts of things.

But that's the story for a lot of these economies where, you know, a lot of the Colorado ski towns used to be mining towns and you can see that kind of these trend lines going in opposite directions, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Because you get, you know, well-to-do people who are newly freed by remote work coming in and they're not making money from local wages, they're, you know, making their income from somewhere else, and a lot of the sort of people who would have stock options.

This county where I live definitely has the characteristics of this economic transition.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Maeve Conran has been working in public and community radio in Colorado for more than 15 years. She served as the news director at KGNU in Boulder/Denver until 2020 and has since been working as the Program Director at Free Speech TV based in Denver, as well as host/producer of the Radio Bookclub podcast and radio show which is a collaboration with the Boulder Bookstore.