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Ajax ban on boards may be perfectly legal

Snowboard riders would have a tough time proving they face legal discrimination from a ban on Aspen Mountain, according to an authority on the federal government’s ski area permits.

The Aspen Skiing Co.’s ban on boards at Ajax is clearly discriminatory, but it doesn’t fit the precise legal definition from civil rights legislation, said Ed Ryberg, winter sports coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region.

“The real question is whether it’s legal or illegal,” Ryberg said. “I don’t think they wrote the Civil Rights Act with snowboarders in mind.”

He noted that discrimination of all types is allowed by the government – smokers are forced to light up outside in the rain, for example, or people without shoes or shirts can be excluded from restaurants.

The government prohibits only specific types of discrimination. They are spelled out in ski area special-use permits such as the one held by the Skico for Aspen Mountain.

A nondiscrimination clause says, “The holder and employees shall not discriminate by segregation or otherwise against any person on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or handicap, by curtailing or refusing to further accommodate facilities, service or use privileges offered to the public generally.”

That section of ski area permits borrows directly from the Civil Rights Act, the Rehabilitation Act and Age Discrimination Act. Board ban under fire The Skico’s prohibition on snowboards at Aspen Mountain came under fire this month when Carbondale resident Kennet van Kesteren wrote a letter of protest to White River National Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle.

Van Kesteren complained that the Skico discriminates apparently to “appease the fur-coat crowd” and vowed that he and others “intend to begin proceedings to file a discrimination lawsuit until this ban is lifted.”

The Skico’s snowboarding ban at Ajax evolved as the sport became popular in the 1980s. The Skico says it’s largely a business decision made because many Aspen Mountain loyalists don’t want to share the slopes with riders.

The ban wasn’t challenged by three previous forest supervisors: Richard Woodrow, who served from 1981-88; Tom Hoots, 1988-92; or Sonny LaSalle, 1992-97.

“For years, the Forest Service just accepted it – the mountain may or may not be suited for [snowboarding],” said Jim Stark, winter sports coordinator for the Aspen Ranger District. “We never addressed it before. We never had to.”

Ketelle has served in office for nearly two years without questioning the board ban. But she said the situation changed when van Kesteren and one other person wrote letters of protest last month. No others were previously filed.

Ketelle responded to van Kesteren’s letter by saying she wants to meet with Skico executives to learn their rationale for the board ban, then determine “is it something the Forest Service will support or not.”

If not, the Skico could be forced to lift the ban or risk not getting its annual operating permit approved for next season. Is ban justified? Forest Service officials in the Aspen and White River National Forest districts have speculated that the Skico’s business concerns aren’t enough to justify the ban.

But Ryberg, from the agency’s regional office, said that’s not a cut-and-dried issue.

He believes the Forest Service must weigh the positive effects that lifting the ban would have on snowboarders with the negative effects it would have on customers who support the status quo.

“How does that play into the public’s greater interest here?” he asked.

Currently, snowboarders are banned from between 1 and 3 percent and have access to at least 97 percent of all national forest lands within ski areas, said Ryberg. Taos, N.M., and Alta, Utah, are the only other two ski areas that use public lands and prohibit boards.

One issue of the debate is whether snowboarders are actually being discriminated against when they have access to 97 percent or more of public lands in ski areas, said Ryberg. Could be national debate That debate expands beyond the Roaring Fork Valley. Ryberg said White River National Forest Supervisor Ketelle “certainly has the authority to do whatever she wants to do.” But if she rules the ban should be lifted, the Skico could file an appeal to the Rocky Mountain Regional office.

If that happened – and the Skico has already indicated it would aggressively defend its policy – it would spark a national debate.

“This discussion is going to have to go on a higher level than the White River National Forest,” said Ryberg. “It’s not a local issue so much as a national one.”

Aspen, Taos and Alta are in three different regions, so the discussion would have to be coordinated and a decision made that would affect all three.

“It doesn’t make sense to twist Aspen’s arm if it’s not going to be required in Taos and Alta,” said Ryberg.

Whether the debate reaches that point remains to be seen. Ketelle said she hopes to meet with Skico representatives within the next few weeks to discuss their rationale for the ban.


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