Feds’ direction on ski areas scrutinized

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen Times file photo
The Aspen Times

A coalition of eight conservation groups is fighting to prevent ski areas from adding roller-coaster-like rides for summer business and from restricting access for winter uphill skiers and snowshoers.

The coalition filed comments with the U.S. Forest Service on Nov. 25 on a proposed national directive by the agency that will set the rules for summer activities and clarify that a fee can be charged for uphillers.

Rocky Smith, a longtime forest-policy analyst for conservation groups in Colorado, said the potential for the “coaster” rides was the most alarming part of the directive for the group.

“The law says, ‘There shall not be amusement parks in ski areas,’” he said. But Vail Resorts has applied to the Forest Service to install a “forest flier” at its flagship ski area, Vail Mountain.

“Forest fliers are roller coasters, which in turn are an amusement ride,” said the comments submitted by the coalition. “The directive must prevent ski areas from becoming or hosting amusement parks.”

Congress passed the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act in 2011. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, introduced the bill to define what ski areas can and cannot do on federal lands within their permit areas for summer activities. Now the Forest Service is working on the rules necessary to implement the law. It is taking public comment on its proposal through Dec. 2.

Udall’s act authorizes zip lines, mountain-bike terrain parks and trails, disc-golf courses and rope courses. It prohibits tennis courts, water slides and parks, swimming pools, golf courses and amusement parks.

Smith said the big issue is the Forest Service’s interpretation of “amusement park.” Ski areas are understandably seeking ways to improve their bottom line, he said, so they want a broad interpretation of what is allowable during summers. The coalition is concerned that the Forest Service will side with the ski industry by allowing “coasters” — a ride where a sled-like container with wheels glides along on rails that whisk through the forest.

“They are really playing fast and loose with the language,” Smith said, referring to the Forest Service.

The proposal for a “coaster” isn’t expected to be isolated to Vail. White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams previously said that several ski areas are watching how Vail Mountain’s summer-adventure proposal will be reviewed to help them form their own summer plans.

So far, Aspen Skiing Co. has focused primarily on expanding its mountain-bike trail system at Snowmass’ Elk Camp for its summer activities. The company also has discussed the possibility of a zip line.

Smith said the conservation groups decided to submit comments after seeing how the Forest Service is interpreting an amusement park as two or more rides in close proximity to one another. That means that large ski areas could erect rides as long as they are a long distance apart. The coalition believes that violates the intent of Udall’s bill.

“With the emphasis on speed and the need for permanent metal structures, such facilities do no ‘harmonize with the natural environment,’ nor ‘encourage outdoor recreation of nature” as required by the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, the coalition said in its comments.

The coalition wants wording that says “no amusement-park rides can be allowed at ski areas, period.”

Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association for the state’s ski industry, is preparing comments but hasn’t submitted them yet, according to a spokeswoman.

The appropriate staff person couldn’t be reached at the Denver-based National Ski Areas Association because of the holiday week, so it couldn’t be determined whether the organization will weigh in.

In addition to defining what summer amenities will be allowed, the Forest Service’s directive clarifies that ski areas can charge uphill skiers and snowshoers for use of groomed trails, parking lots and other services.

The coalition suggested changes in wording to make sure ski areas cannot exclude non-paying members of the public.

“While use by such people can be limited to certain parts of a ski-area permit area and/or certain times of the day, the proposed language here is too loose to ensure that non-paying use would not be prohibited altogether,” the coalition’s comments said.

The members of the coalition that signed off on the comments are: Sheep Mountain Alliance, of Telluride; Sequoia ForestKeeper, of Kernville, Calif.; Conservation Congress, of Livingston, Mont.; Heartwood, of Bloomington, Ind.; WildEarth Guardians, of Santa Fe, N.M.; Klamath Forest Alliance, of Orleans, Calif.; Environmental Protection Information Center, of Arcata, Calif.; and Rocky Mountain Recreational Initative, of Nederland.

The link for the proposed Forest Service directive and the link to provide comment are at articles/2013/10/02/ 2013-23998/proposed- directive-for-additional- seasonal-or-year-round- recreation-activities-at-ski-areas.