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

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

Tables are set for outdoor dining last winter at the Sam’s restaurant at Snowmass. Ski areas had to get creative to offset the lack of indoor dining due to COVID-19 restrictions.
David Krause/Aspen Times archive

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 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 2013-14

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.

A skier loads onto the Elk Camp Gondola through the decorated gates with flags for Australia Day in Snowmass Base Village on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Tuesday was the national holiday for Australia. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen Skiing Co. was hit especially hard in 2019-20 because of the lack of international travel. The wave of Australian visitors that usually hits in January was non-existent. Australia currently has severe travel restrictions in place.

“Australia might miss their typical January window, but we are hearing that we might see some Australians later in the winter/spring,” Skico vice president of communication Jeff Hanle wrote in an email. “The demand is there if and when they can travel.”

More encouraging news was announced this week that the U.S. would start allowing travelers from the United Kingdom and European Union counties in November if they can prove they are vaccinated and COVID-free.

“We are seeing great interest and bookings coming in from Europe,” Hanle said. “We should expect to see many European/UK guests back in the town this winter.”

The brightest international prospect for Skico is Latin America, he said.

“Argentina and Mexico have been booking and Brazil has been waiting for flights to be loaded and for the U.S. to open back up to Brazilian travelers,” Hanle said.