NASCAR at your local ski area?
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Where do you draw the line on development for recreation? The U.S. Forest Service has been asking that question since at least 1919, when a young landscape architect named Arthur Carhart was dispatched to northwestern Colorado to design a road around a remote lake.
When Carhart returned from Trappers Lake, he asked a simple, ultimately profound question: Why not leave the land alone?
His Forest Service bosses agreed. The road wasn’t built and the lake is sometimes called the cradle of wilderness.
Now that question about where to draw the line on development is being asked again, this time as the result of a proposal from the ski industry. Following that proposal, legislation being readied by U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado, would broaden the allowed uses of national forests by ski area operators.
“My bill would make it clear that activities like mountain biking, concerts and other appropriate uses can be allowed at these ski areas,” said Udall in a press release.
Environmental groups, however, say Udall’s proposal is too broad. Ryan Demmy Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild, a ski industry watchdog, says the bill “leaves the door open to urbanized recreation activities like roller coasters and water parks that are inappropriate anywhere on national forest land.”
The Forest Service has long struggled with defining what is appropriate. Carhart himself wanted the Forest Service to enable the general public to enjoy national forests by building campgrounds and roads. The agency did; and after World War II, it picked up the pace. A major partner ” the largest single source of visitors to national forests ” has been the downhill ski industry.
In deciding what is appropriate recreation, the Forest Service is guided first by a 1986 law that defines ski areas as places that offer alpine and nordic skiing. Not mentioned is snowboarding ” or, for that matter, many other uses occurring even then.
Forest Service regulations further state that activities on all national forests must be “natural resource based” and oriented toward the “outdoors.”
Also, forest snow rangers ask whether the activity could instead be offered on private land. Using this filter, the Forest Service in the early 1990s rebuffed pleas by ski area operators to allow employee housing on national forests. The ski areas saw employee housing as a necessary part of their operations, like snow guns, but the Forest Service said ski areas had private land available.
Still, Forest Service rangers have often been troubled in defining what is acceptable.
“Some of the proposals are bumping up against what reasonable people would define as natural resource-based recreation,” says Ken Kowynia, winter sports program manager for the U.S. Forest Service in the Rocky Mountain Region.
An easy call, says Kowynia, is mountain bikes. Ski areas began soliciting mountain bikers in the 1980s, and have now expanded their programs. Kowynia argues that by congregating mountain bikes at ski areas, that activity can be managed. The alternate is more dispersed riding in national forests, which often results in so-called pirate trails, where erosion is rampant and disruptions to wildlife frequent.
The ski industry says the legislation is needed to clear up whether mountain biking is a permitted use.
Geraldine Link, public policy director for the National Ski Areas Association(NSAA), cites one public comment in response to a proposed expansion of mountain biking at Winter Park. The comment questioned the authority of the Forest Service to permit mountain biking at ski areas.
Ski areas want the right to cater to mountain bikers to be unquestioned, Link says. They have been paying attention to a mountain bike park at Whistler, a ski area in the Canadian province of British Columbia, that has recorded more than 100,000 visits per summer, she said.
“Just as [free-skiing] terrain parks are increasingly popular, I would see mountain bike parks, where you hone your technical skills, becoming increasingly popular in summer,” she says.
But others describe the Udall bill as a Trojan horse for the ski industry and other commercial users. Making that case is Scott Silver, of Bend, Ore., who campaigns on a website called Wild Wilderness.
“There has been this creep that has been transforming the forests, and this is just another part of that creep,” he says.
Ski areas already have exceeded their authority in how they use national forests, he says. The Udall bill would move the line of what is unquestionably acceptable. If ski areas succeed, other commercial operations will follow, he predicts.
“The concessionaires will definitely follow, and so will the marine operators,” says Silver. He cites a company that he says is “wetting their pants waiting to get authority to develop lakes the same way that ski areas develop mountains.”
Few ski areas could be confused with wilderness by even the most concrete-hardened urbanites. Ski areas are warrens of roads. Vast amounts of electricity are needed to power sophisticated gravity-defying conveyances, otherwise called ski lifts and gondolas, which are at the heart of a ski area’s business.
Pipes carrying water and compressed air ” to manufacture snow when the natural stuff is absent ” border trails. Fleets of tractors, commonly called snow cats, prowl the slopes to expertly manicure the snow.
Lately, with new authority, some ski areas began selling advertisements on chair lifts. The advertisements are technically sponsorships. The warming huts of old have given way to mountain-top restaurants that are almost swank.
Vail raised the ante in the mid-1990s with its on-mountain activity center called Adventure Ridge. There, tubing, snow biking and other snow-sliding activities are offered in a small, lighted areas near the top of the gondola. Newer additions are a go-cart-like amusement with mini-snowmobiles for smaller youngsters and a bungee-tethered trampoline.
Nearby are mountain-top restaurants, bars, and a video parlor. In the background are the Gore Range and Mount of the Holy Cross.
Other ski areas have mimicked Vail’s on-mountain diversification.
The larger questions are about summer amusements. Are disc-golf courses appropriate? Zip-lines? Alpine coasters?
An alpine coaster has been proposed for Vail Mountain. The coaster cars, powered by gravity, would run on metal tracks, 2 to 10 feet above the ground. Somewhat like a luge run, the proposed course would be primarily in the trees, entirely on national forest.
If this sounds like Disneyland, the question is still worth asking: When it comes to having a direct, immediate experience of the great outdoors, how much different is this from tree skiing on $700 worth of boots and fat skis?
Somewhat different than coasters are alpine slides, where the rides are in concrete troughs sunken into the mountainsides. Breckenridge and Winter Park both have such slides that were created in the 1970s; but these are entirely or primarily on private land. The slide at Durango Mountain Resort is entirely on federal land.
The Forest Service hasn’t ruled on Vail’s proposal, according to Roger Poirier, winter sports program manager for the White River National Forest. The review was postponed to allow review of projects that have a higher priority for Vail Resorts, he said.
“We did have some conversations internally about the appropriateness, because the alpine coaster is one of the more novel ideas out there,” he says.
Colorado Wild’s Bidwell thinks the line should be drawn clearly. “Vail’s coaster is a good example of a project that we don’t think belongs on public lands, because it’s not an activity dependent upon a natural resource setting,” he says.
Udall’s office, when asked whether the legislation would allow Vail’s coaster, did not respond.
Language in the draft bill is ambiguous. It proposes to give the Department of Agriculture (which includes the Forest Service) broad latitude. It does focus on the need to get the general public to enjoy public lands.
“It is in the national interest,” says the bill,” to encourage Americans to take advantage of opportunities during all four seasons to engage in outdoor recreational activities that can contribute to their health and well-being.”
Colorado Wild, along with 16 other organizations from across the West, this week sent a letter to Udall favoring the bill, but asking for major changes.
“As written, the proposed legislation could result in the authorization of absolutely any outdoor recreation activities on public land,” stated the letter.
The bill, as drafted, would give the Forest Service “too much discretion” that would “result in haphazard interpretation” and “inconsistency in the types of activities and facilities permitted at ski areas.”
The conservation groups also object to the statement that any proposed activity must “harmonize with the natural environment to the extent practical.” The last four words, they say, must be deleted.
“We’re not against recreation on public lands, and we’re not against developed recreation on public lands,” says Bidwell. The issue, he adds, is a need to be very clear and specific about “what does and does not belong.”
The ski industry says consistency is unnecessary.
The NSAA’s Link points out that Utah’s Alta ski area still bans snowboards. At California’s Mountain High, located 45 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, 90 percent of customers are on snowboards, with loud music blaring all around.
“It’s a very urban feel ” and it’s all on public land,” she says of Mountain High.
She says times change, so do people ” and so should ski areas. The nation, she says, has become more urban.
“You have to be realistic about what kinds of activities will bring people off the couch and into the outdoors to appreciate the natural environment,” says Link. “The average person does not don a 40-pound pack and hike nine miles into the forest for their recreation.”
How about water parks on national forests lands?
Ski areas in the East and Midwest, which typically operate on private land, have been developing parks to improve year-round economies.
Link draws a different picture for federal lands: a naturally appearing pond or pool of water, lined with boulders and possibly fed by hot springs. How, she asks, would this be any different than making snow for skiing?
“We hold summer to a different standard [of what is allowed at ski areas] and I want to know why,” she says.
As for Bidwell, he says the Udall bill needs to be more explicit about where that line is drawn so that “one ski area doesn’t think it’s acceptable to have NASCAR on their ski trails and another one thinks it’s unacceptable to have a hot dog stand.”
Silver, of Wild Wilderness, wants neither one.
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