Op-ed: What’s the ski area summer-use bill really about?

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

USFS chief says agency is already preparing guidance, even though the measure hasn’t been passed by Congress yet

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said last week his agency is preparing new rules that will enable rangers to quickly approve new summer projects on national forest lands under permit to ski resorts, should Congress pass a law that Colorado Sen. Mark Udall has been pushing the past few years.

Tidwell talked about the agency’s new guidance and other Forest Service related matters during a budget hearing in a House subcommittee hearing. Click here to see an archived webcast of his testimony (give it a few seconds to load, and make sure to click the >play button) and the rest of the hearing. Here’s a link to Sen. Udall’s blog on the bill. And click here to read the bill itself.

Even though there seems to be no shortage of summer events and activities at Colorado ski areas, the industry has been lobbying heavily to get the bill passed, claiming that Forest Service rules are too restrictive. This time around, the law has been dressed up as an economic development measure that would boost employment and economic activity in the shoulder seasons.

On the surface, the bill doesn’t seem to be a big deal, but it could potentially break a long-established precedent, depending on the specific guidance. Up to now, the Forest Service has had a general policy that applicants should look to private lands first — in other words, if a ski resort wants to operate a go-kart track, it should first try to find a parcel of private land for that activity, as is the case at Copper Mountain, for example. Similarly, when Summit Huts recently went to the Forest Service to find a spot for a new hut on the Dillon Ranger District, the nonprofit group was told to go and look for private land first.

Details surrounding the proposed law are slim, as officials generally respond to questions about the measure with statements like, “Did you know that mountain biking isn’t even clearly authorized under existing regulations.”

That doesn’t seem to have stopped many areas from developing extensive mountain bike trail systems — so what’s the real purpose of the bill? Some homeowner groups near ski areas are concerned that the measure would authorize urban-type activities like amusement park rides.

Conservation groups also have expressed concern that the measure could spur development of attractions that aren’t related to the natural resource-based mission of the Forest Service, including water parks, mini-golf and concert amphitheaters that would result in yet more disturbance to national forest lands and compete with local businesses.

At some point, the bill will probably pass, so it will be important to watch how the Forest Service decides to implement it.

Tidwell’s written testimony for a House budget hearing:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/50765136/USFS-Chief-Tidwell-s-written-testimony-on-Forest-Service-budget

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One thought on “Op-ed: What’s the ski area summer-use bill really about?

  1. Reading this article, I got an image in my head of poor old George Bailey running down the streets of a Bedford Falls where he was never born, gaping at all the honky-tonks and pawn shops. Tasteless development will always run rampant if no one intervenes.

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