Agency may authorize fees for uphill skiing, snowshoe travel at resorts on national forests
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO —Can you harmonize with the natural environment while speeding down a mountain zip line?
It may depend on exactly how fast you’re going, according to the U.S. Forest Service, which is rolling out a new set of rules to govern the permitting of summer recreational installations at ski areas operating on national forest lands.
In one of the biggest changes that would affect other private businesses near resorts, the agency would back away from a long-standing policy that precluded authorization for facilities that could be provided on nearby non-Forest Service lands. The proposed rules are posted at http://www.fs.fed.us/specialuses.
At issue is what sort of recreational developments will be allowed, following passage of the Ski Areas Recreational Opportunities Enhancement Act, which authorized some new summer uses (including zip lines), banned others (like swimming pools and water slides) but left other possible attractions open to interpretation.
The new rules would help Forest Service officials evaluate proposals put forth by ski resorts looking to boost summer business, determining whether those plans are consistent with the 2011 law. The overall thrust of the new law is to allow new developments that foster appreciation of the outdoors.
Along with summer developments, the agency also wants to clarify policies on advertising at ski resorts, and provide guidance on non-exclusive use at ski areas, including snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, by the non-paying public.
The Forest Service taking public comment on the new rules through Dec. 2, and despite the government shutdown, the comment portal at www.regulations.gov is apparently still open. Comments also may be submitted by mail to USDA Forest Service Ski Area Comments, Pacific Southwest Regional Office, 1323 Club Drive, Vallejo, CA 94592.
The new rules would include a list of developments that are specifically banned. It could include things like merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, miniature train rides, and roller coasters.
The rules could also enable additional temporary outdoor advertising at all sorts of events at ski areas, not just at races.
Pay for uphill access?
Outdoor athletes who enjoy using resorts for exercise without paying for a lift ticket could also be affected by the changes. Up to now, Forest Service regulations and ski area permits specify that the permitted ski area activities are non-exclusive, meaning that those lands are open for public use, as long as those activities don’t interfere with the permitted use.
Here’s how the Forest Service describes the issue in the notice on the new rules:
“Several ski areas on NFS lands have experienced a significant increase in the number of recreationists using snowshoes or cross-country skis or simply traveling on foot on slopes within ski areas. The Agency has identified a need to address how this type of public use may be conducted efficiently and safely. Consequently, the proposed directives would provide guidance on recreational use at ski areas by the non-paying public.”
That means the Forest Service would authorize ski areas to “charge fees for use of improvements and services in which they have made capital investments, such as ski trails or other facilities they constructed, groom, or otherwise maintain, and to clarify that ski area permit holders may not be allowed to charge for use of non-motorized or motorized trails that are constructed and maintained by the Forest Service.
Additionally, the agency also wants to try and ensure that at least “some portions of the permit area remain open to the public without charge, so that the holder’s charges do not constitute de facto entrance fees.”
Ski area operating plans would have to show how the resorts plan to maintain public access “for all lawful uses that are not inconsistent with the holder’s rights and privileges.”
As proposed, the new rules would specify that, “in most cases it would not be appropriate for restrictions to preclude all public use during the ski season other than by those purchasing a liftticket or paying for other services.”
The rules would also encourage the development of new facilities in parts of the resort already developed for recreation and require that new developments harmonize with the natural environment by fitting in with the the ski area’s existing vegetation and landscape. According to the proposed rules, the new installations shouldn’t require significant modifications to topography.
The agency also doesn’t want to see a lot of new infrastructure development to support the new activities; instead, the proposals should emphasize the use of existing lifts and other facilities.
The new rules would also formalize approval for temporary activities like concerts and weddings that “are not necessarily dependent on but could be enhanced by a National Forest setting.”
Crucially, the new rules would spell out that ski areas couldn’t seek an expansion of permit boundaries based on the additional seasonal activities: “permit area expansions must be based on needs related to snow sports rather than additional seasonal or year-round recreation.