Colorado ski resorts paid about $19 million last season to use the White River National Forest |

Colorado ski resorts paid about $19 million last season to use the White River National Forest

Ski area use fees show industry bounced back last winter after abrupt end to 2019-20

Scott Condon
Aspen Times
Arapahoe Basin Ski Area is pictured March 17, 2021. Summit County’s four ski areas — Breckenridge Ski Resort, Keystone Resort, Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area — all operate in the White River National Forest.
Ashley Low/For the Summit Daily News

The 11 Colorado ski areas located within the White River National Forest paid nearly $2 million more for use of public lands during the 2020-21 season than during the disastrous winter before.

The 11 ski areas, which include Breckenridge Ski Resort, Keystone Resort, Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, paid a cumulative $19.21 million to the U.S. government last season. That was up $1.92 million or 11% from the $17.29 million paid in 2019-20.

That indicates that the ski areas adapted well to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. Resort operators set up temporary outdoor structures for dining because of indoor seating restrictions, for example.

“It took a lot of effort and I think it paid off,” Fitzwilliams said. “I think (resort operators) deserve a lot of credit for trying to meet the requirements.”

The annual ski area fees paid to the U.S. Forest Service provide a glimpse into the strength of the ski season. Most of the heavyweights of the Colorado ski industry are located in the White River, including the four Aspen Snowmass ski areas and the Vail Resorts ski areas as well as a few independents.

The ski industry was cruising to a record or near-record year when it was forced to abruptly shut down in mid-March 2020, in the heart of the busy spring break season. That had a big effect on the bottom line. Alterra Mountain Resort, for example, is engaged in a lawsuit with its insurance carrier over recovering its business loses from winter 2019-20. The Colorado Sun reported that Alterra claimed its losses exceeded $200 million at the 15 resorts it owns.

Ski area fees

The 11 ski resorts on the White River National Forest pay a fee for use of public lands. The U.S. Forest Service uses a complex formula to tally the amount. In short, a better season for the resorts means higher fees. Here are the fees paid since the 2013-14 ski season:

2020-21 $19.21M

2019-20 $17.29M

2018-19 $22.56M

2017-18 $20.43M

2016-17 $20.18M

2015-16 $19.94M

2014-15 $17.90M

2013-14 $15.92M

Source: U.S. Forest Service

As a result of the tough end of the 2019-20 season, the fees paid by the ski areas on the White River was the lowest since 2013-14, according to figures supplied by the White River supervisor’s office.

Even with the uptick last winter, the ski area fees lagged well behind the strongest years for the industry over the last decade. The 11 ski areas paid a record $22.56 million in fees in 2018-19, according to the Forest Service. That was $3.35 million or 15% more than what the 11 resorts paid last season.

Resort operators pay a fee that is based on a complex formula that factors in acres of public lands used by the ski area and business derived from use of those lands. Less activity means lower fees and vice versa.

The Forest Service used to divulge the fees paid for each individual ski area until Vail Resorts complained the disclosure provided confidential business secrets. The regional office of the Forest Service granted Vail’s request to stop reporting individual fees in 2017.

The fees paid by the ski areas goes to the U.S. Treasury rather than sticking with the agency. Legislation has been introduced to keep a major portion of the funds in the forest where they are generated. The proposal has the backing of the industry, but its fate is yet to be settled.

Fitzwilliams said his contact with ski area operators indicates they are optimistic for a bounce-back winter. The Forest Service hasn’t been asked to approve measures such as temporary, outdoor restaurant structures, he noted, but the number of COVID cases over the next two months will shape what ski areas must do over the winter.

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