Ski resorts aren't just for winters anymore, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall said Thursday.
The Colorado Democrat wants to clarify the U.S. Forest Service permitting process to make it easier for resorts that use public lands to get approval for summertime activities.
"Our ski areas shouldn't have to close up shop once the snow melts," Udall said in a teleconference with Colorado mountain-town reporters. He said he is continually interested in finding ways to ease the "ups and downs" of ski-town economies and create stability.
He teamed with three other legislators from Western states to introduce the Ski Area Recreation Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011 on Thursday. The co-sponsors are Rep. Dianna DeGette (D-Colo.), Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).
The current law, the National Forest Ski Area Permit Act of 1986, only allows skiing and ski-related activities on public lands used by resort operators. Forest Service officials are already approving some summertime uses - such as the climbing wall and disc golf at the top of Aspen Mountain and lift-served mountain biking at Snowmass. But Udall wants to cure the ambiguity in current regulations on what is and what isn't allowed. Representatives of both the Forest Service and the ski industry asked him to co-sponsor the legislation, he said.
The 1986 act is so outdated it doesn't specifically mention snowboarding as an allowed use for ski areas, Udall noted. That will be amended in the new legislation.
"This is a common sense way to provide clarity," Udall said.
As proposed, the bill specifically allows mountain bike terrain parks and trails, "Frisbee golf," ropes courses and zip lines as summertime uses on public lands used by ski areas. The list isn't intended to be exhaustive.
The bill excludes tennis courts, swimming pools, golf courses, "amusement parks" and water slides and water parks.
Alpine slides aren't included in one list or another, but Udall cited them as a use that might be appropriate. Local Forest Service officials will retain discretion in decision-making, he said.
Udall in his teleconference and all four co-sponsors in a press release touted summertime use of public lands as a way to increase tourism and strengthen rural economies. Udall said he isn't promoting "industrial tourism" but wants to better utilize existing facilities and attract tourists to resort towns.
"Tourism is a top economic driver for Colorado, but because many of our ski areas are limited to providing recreational opportunities during the winter months only, many ski towns swing between thriving winters and slumping shoulder seasons every year," Udall said in a statement. "This bill will bolster mountain economies by enabling the Forest Service to permit more use during the off-seasons."
No examples were provided by Udall of the Forest Service turning down any applications for summer uses of mountain biking, hiking or other activities the new legislation would allow.
"We already have a variety of activities going on at ski areas on public land in summers," confirmed Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the Lakewood-based National Ski Areas Association, a national trade group for the industry. Nevertheless, the clarity to existing rules would be welcomed, she said.
Like Udall, Link stressed that every proposal will still be given site-specific consideration. The proposed amendment to the permitting process doesn't give the ski industry carte blanche for summer activities.
Dave Bellack, senior vice president and general counsel for Aspen Skiing Co., said the company supports the bill, although it probably won't be affected by it in a major way. It deserves support for the clarity it provides.
"The Forest Service, like a lot of federal agencies, is a creature of [regulations]," he said, adding that defining the rules benefits both the administrators and those being regulated.
"It's a bill that we support mainly through Colorado Ski Country USA," Bellack said. Bellack also serves as chair of the Colorado Ski Country board of directors.
The U.S. House passed a similar version of the bill in July 2010 and it emerged from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that session but didn't come up for a vote on the Senate floor.
Udall noted the bill has bipartisan support, which greatly enhances its chances. Link said it creates jobs and improves rural economies. "I would say our chances to pass are very good," she said.