The U.S. Forest Service released new guidelines Tuesday, April 15, for ski resort expansions of summer and year-round recreation.
The policy clarifies how the Forest Service will permit ski areas that want to host events and activities like mountain biking, zip lines and ropes and disc golf courses, and it clears the way for Vail Resorts’ summer plans for Breckenridge Ski Area, Vail Mountain and Heavenly Mountain Resort in Lake Tahoe, Calif.
“We want to retain that natural setting that people expect when they visit a national forest,” said Jim Bedwell, director of recreation, lands and minerals for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region. “That being said, it is within one of our most highly developed settings, a ski area.”
The guidelines, which will be published in the Federal Register this week and take effect immediately, are revisions to the 1986 National Forest Ski Area Permit Act as part of an amendment pushed through Congress by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.
Udall introduced the 2011 Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, as a way to create more year-round jobs in mountain communities and boost Colorado’s recreational and tourism economy.
The bill also addressed the vague language of the 1986 act. For example, its language didn’t allow for snowboarding, though it clearly wasn’t interpreted that way by resorts, said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest.
Though the policy changes were drafted in the agency’s Washington office, he said, its writers asked for input from regional agencies.
For the last five or six years, ski industry leaders have been asking the agency to allow more activities like those already in place at ski areas on private land in the Northeast and at resorts in Europe, Bedwell said.
The Forest Service recognizes, he said, that more diversification is important to ski resorts’ business strategies and long-term viability in the face of threats to winter activities, like climate change.
He said the economic development and the health benefits to individuals and communities fall in line with the Forest Service’s mission.
The policy change is also driven by the agency’s desire to attract different demographics, including more of the country’s urban residents, to outdoor recreation. Those who don’t like or are unfamiliar with camping, hiking, skiing and fishing could experience the forest in a different way, Fitzwilliams said. They might gain a deeper appreciation for nature and then want to explore other national forest lands.
“Ideally we’ll see people using ski area parking lots and lodging and spending the day in the national forest beyond the ski areas,” Bedwell said, which would help the agency avoid building and maintaining new trailheads and infrastructure, because the ski resorts would bear the cost.
The agency will approve some summer uses, like zip lines, canopy tours and mountain bike parks, that can encourage outdoor recreation and the enjoyment of nature and can harmonize with the natural environment. The guidelines specifically prohibit some activities and facilities, including those common at amusement parks like merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels and roller coasters.
“Beyond that,” Bedwell said, “we can use our existing processes that we use on anything from a timber sale to a road construction to a mining activity to guide us to maintain that natural character.”
Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service always goes through the same process analyzing a proposal’s effects on animals, watersheds and other ecological factors.
“No matter what the project is, whether it’s a new lift, a ski run or a zip line, we look at them similarly,” he said. And not every activity will go on at every ski resort, he said. Things appropriate in some areas might not be appropriate in other areas.
But the biggest question with the expansions, he said, is the social impact, or how new activities could affect other people.
“We know there’s a sector of people who want certain types of solitude, and then there’s people who don’t care,” Fitzwilliams said, citing debates over motorized and non-motorized trails.
That’s difficult, he said, because it’s not as easily quantifiable as the effect on elk habitat of removing a certain number of trees.
Of the 2.3 million acres in the White River National Forest, about 40,000 acres is designated for ski area use, or less than 2 percent, Fitzwilliams emphasized, and people who want more solitude can experience backcountry in the other 98 percent.
Locally, Breckenridge and Vail have been on the forefront of expanding their summer operations, Bedwell said. Other Colorado ski resorts are planning expansions but haven’t filed proposals yet.
Copper Mountain already has zip lines in its village as well as summer activities through its Woodward at Copper Summer Camp.
In 2012, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area released a master development plan.
Its proposed expansions involve mainly winter activities, like adding skiing terrain and building and removing chairlifts, as well as zip lines and a ropes course. Communications manager Adrienne Saia Isaac said Wednesday that any summer plans are still a few seasons away.