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Mountain News: More summer amusements in already busy mountain towns



SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Ski areas in the Tahoe-Truckee area continue to add summer attractions.

"It's happening, and it's only going to continue to grow, hopefully beyond the bigger resorts," said Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. "I think every resort in some way or shape is heading in that direction."

The Tahoe Daily Tribune cites Heavenly, which is owned by Vail Resorts. The "Epic Discovery" offerings include zip lines, climbing walls, tubing, ropes courses, and a mountain coaster. A mountain coaster differs from a roller coaster in that it mostly hugs the downhill slope as the tracks twist and turn.

Northstar, located near Truckee and also owned by Vail, also has extensive summer operations, as does Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadow, which is owned by Alterra.

Others are following: Diamond Peak Ski Resort plans a major summer expansion. But other, smaller ski areas, such as those near Donner Pass, seem less inclined to expand into the non-amusement park attractions.

Ski areas operating on U.S. government land had been governed by a 1986 law that made no mention of summer use of the land used for downhill skiing. Most ski areas catered to mountain bikers, and many kept gondolas running to mountaintop restaurants.

But the U.S. Forest Service, on whose land 122 ski areas in the United States operate, was resistant when Vail Resorts and other ski area operations began talking about new, summer-centric attractions. The agency said it needed clear, authorizing legislation.

Congress in 2011 delivered that green light, the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, which was then signed into law by President Barack Obama. The new law authorized the new activities.

Vail Mountain was the test case for the new process, followed soon by Breckenridge and Heavenly. The Nature Conservancy blessed the idea and helped construct information panels and other devices intended to explain the natural world evident from the ski area activities.

Ski areas get to keep much of the additional revenue and also extend some part-time jobs for employees into more year-round employment. Ski areas said they never expected that summer attractions would match that of skiing. So far, that seems to be the case.

In California, the Sierra Club opposed the summer expansion plans at Heavenly, but not because of the activities on the mountain. Instead, the environmental group worried about extra cars and exhaust in the Tahoe Basin during the busiest time of the year for tourists, explained the Daily Tribune. "I'm sure there are some resorts where the expansion is perfectly appropriate," said Bruce Hamilton, the deputy executive director of the Sierra Club.

In Vail, the opening of the new attractions three years ago was hard to detect among the summer busynesss. Vail's two large parking garages 20 years ago sat largely empty. Now, they're nearly full on many summer days.

Jim Lamont, who heads an organization called the Vail Homeowners Association, says the new attractions add to Vail's traffic woes, and that decreases the quality of life. He also sees this fitting into a business picture, one of economic expansion with unintended consequences.

New and more customers results in the need for more employee housing. "Are you ever going to get enough housing built to meet the needs? No," he told Mountain Town News.

In California, the Daily Tribune portrays this against two important backdrops. One is climate change and the seemingly greater ups and downs of snowfall. Not every winter is epic, the newspaper notes. The other is the fact that skier numbers have been flat for a good many years.

What it fails to mention is that revenue from ski area operations, as opposed to skier numbers, has been anything but flat. How else do you explain why first Vail Resorts and now Alterra Mountain Resorts have engaged at a furious pace to buy more and more ski areas?