New rules will define resorts’ summer uses

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
The Valhalla Trail at Snowmass Ski Area entices summer use with a banked corner coveted by downhill bicyclists.
Aspen Skiing Co./courtesy photo |

The U.S. Forest Service finalized a policy this week on what amenities ski areas can add for summer use, but the new rules skirt one of the biggest questions.

The Forest Service’s summer-use policy was hailed by the agency’s national headquarters as a way to promote year-round business at established ski areas that use national forests for their operations. Ski areas, including Aspen Skiing Co., have invested heavily in recent years on making resorts more attractive in the summer. The industry sees the greatest potential for growth in summers since national skier visits essentially have plateaued.

Public land managers in places like the White River National Forest — which includes the ski areas of Aspen, Vail and Summit County — have looked to the Forest Service’s national headquarters for clarification on what type of summer uses can be approved. The Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, championed by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., among others, provided direction when Congress approved it in 2011. Now the Forest Service has implemented the direction in its policies.

The policy makes it clear that uses such as mountain-bike trails and terrain parks, zip lines, canopy cruisers — which combine zip lines, suspension bridges and other obstacles — and disc golf are acceptable on public lands that are part of resort operations. Those uses “can be natural resource-based, encourage outdoor recreation and enjoyment of nature, and harmonize with the natural environment,” the Forest Service said in the new policy directive.

“Other summer uses involving facilities that are common at amusement parks, such as merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, miniature train rides and roller coasters, do not meet the criteria” of the new regulations, the agency said.

The policy dodged defining whether mountains coasters are allowed. Coasters are an amenity where carts use gravity to fly downhill on a track.

“It isn’t specifically prohibited or allowed,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. “We will make an individual, site-specific decision on if it fits.”

That process will include collecting public comments, he added. The precedent-setting decision on coasters at Colorado resorts likely will come sooner than later. Vail Mountain’s plan for a summer adventure center is under review by the White River. Vail’s proposal includes a coaster.

Aspen Skiing Co. has outlined its general, long-term plan for summer use at its resorts, Fitzwilliams said. Skico already has received approval for a variety of summer uses at the Elk Camp section of Snowmass. It is rapidly expanding its mountain bike and hiking trail network on the east section of the mountain. Elk Camp restaurant is the focal point for those activities.

The agency and resort operator will work on zoning that will define what types of uses are appropriate at what locations on the ski areas, according to Fitzwilliams.

Skico officials have acknowledged that they are eyeing summer business for growth, but the company hasn’t outlined its broader vision yet.

Fitzwilliams expects that summer uses will be a major part of the proposals it will see from resorts over the next five to 10 years.

Udall and Colorado’s other senator, Michael Bennet, as well as U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton released statements Tuesday and Wednesday applauding the implementation of the summer-use policy. They all said it would boost business in Colorado’s mountain resorts.