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Ski resorts paid less for public land use in COVID-shortened season

Scott Condon
Aspen Times
A sign sits at the base of Aspen Mountain giving notice to the closure of the ski resorts on March 15, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner / The Aspen Times

Aspen Skiing Co. and the other resort operators in the White River National Forest paid their lowest dollar amount since 2014 for use of public lands last ski season.

The ski area fees paid to the U.S. Forest Service plummeted because the 2019-20 season was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic. The 11 resorts in the White River National Forest were forced by the state of Colorado to close at the end of the day March 14 — right when spring break crowds were rolling in.

The 11 resorts pay a fee that is based on a complex formula that involves acres of public lands and business levels, among other factors. The less business during the winter, the lower the fees.

The 11 ski areas were billed a cumulative $17,288,704.76 by the Forest Service in fiscal year 2020. However, slightly more than $4 million was deferred. That reduced the actual payment to $13.19 million.

The $4 million that was deferred was a minimum payment for fiscal year 2021. That down payment on the next year is regularly included in the ski areas fees, said David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River supervisor’s office.

“They will still pay that $4 million in FY 21, it just won’t be in advance,” Boyd said.

The deferral of the minimum fee for fiscal year 2021 was in recognition that resorts faced a tough financial time because of the pandemic, he said.

PAY TO PLAY

The 11 ski areas on the White River National Forest pay a fee for use of public lands. Here are the fee’s paid since 2014.

2020 $17.29 million*

2019 $22.56 million

2018 $20.43 million

2017 $20.18 million

2016 $19.94 million

2015 $17.90 million

2014 $15.92 million

* Of the $17.29 billed in 2020, about $4 million charged as a minimum fee for fiscal year 2021 was deferred. It will be paid at a later time. Source: U.S. Forest Service

The 11 resorts paid a record amount last year with cumulative fees of $22.56 million. That reflected the record-breaking season of 2018-19.

For sake of comparison, the $17.29 million that was billed for fiscal 2020 was a decrease of $5.27 million, or 23%.

Ski area fees exceeded $20 million from 2017 through 2019 (see fact box).

Nationwide, ski resorts reported a 14% drop in skier and snowboarder visits last season due to the early closure, according to National Ski Areas Association, a Denver-based trade association. An NSAA representative said last summer that the organization has calculated a financial loss of $2 billion among resorts from COVID-19 and the closures. The number was expected to grow, but it couldn’t be updated Friday with NSAA.

Aspen Skiing Co. was on pace last season to match the record numbers of 2018-19 — until the closure. Skico’s skier visits ended up tumbling 20% last season.

The Forest Service previously released the fees paid by each of the 11 resorts. As recently as 2016, the public could find out how large of a fee was paid by Snowmass, Vail Mountain and the other nine individual resorts on the forest. That policy was changed after Vail Resorts complained it was proprietary information and lobbied the national office to stop releasing individual fees. The Forest Service now only reports the lump sum for the resorts.

The 11 resorts that use public lands on the White River National Forest are Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, Buttermilk, Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin, Copper Mountain and Sunlight Mountain Resort.

This story is from the Aspen Times. Reach Scott at scondon@aspentimes.com.


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