EDITOR’S NOTE: In the U.S. many ski resorts are located on
U.S. Forest Service lands, which limits the development of accommodations,
villages, and other amenities and recreational opportunities that most resorts
in Canada take for granted. For example, the nearest accommodations to Mt.
Baker Ski Resort on the other side of the B.C. border are about 17 miles from
the ski area, while summer activities are limited to hiking and camping.
The closest analogue in Canada is Banff National Park, which
houses Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Ski Banff Norquay, where many
activities are not permitted such as downhill mountain biking, and resort
managers are constantly asking Parks Canada for more leeway to offer the same
activities and amenities as resorts elsewhere in B.C. and Alberta.
Whistler remains the model for a four-season resort in
Canada, allowing a wide range of activities during the winter months including
motorized activities in designated areas, as well as a wide range of activities
in the summer.
If U.S. ski area operators operating in the U.S. Forest
Service have their way, they’ll be able to offer the same types of activities
Where do you draw the line on developed 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.
Why not leave the land alone? Carhart asked. His Forest
Service bosses agreed, and Trappers Lake is sometimes called the cradle of
Now that question is being asked again, this time as the
result of a proposal from the ski industry going before Congress. 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. The bill, says Ryan Demmy Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild,
a ski industry watchdog, “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, picked up the pace. A major partner — the
largest single source of visitors to national forests — have been the
downhill ski areas.
In deciding what is appropriate recreation, the Forest
Service is guided first by a 1986 law that defines ski areas as being places
that offers 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
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 them to build
housing for employees in national forests. The ski areas saw employee housing
as routine as snow guns, but the Forest Service said ski areas had private land
An easy call
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
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
use 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, 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 wanted the right to cater to mountain bikers to be
unquestioned, she says. They have been paying attention to the mountain bike
park at Whistler that has recorded more than 100,000 visits per summer.
“Just as 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, Oregon, 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 have already 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 the name of a company that he says is
“wetting their pants waiting to get authority to develop lakes the same way
that ski areas develop mountains.”
The existing realities
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 the sophisticated gravity-defying conveyances,
otherwise called ski lifts and gondolas — the heavy-lifting machinery 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 mountaintop restaurants that are
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 area near the top of the
gondola. Newer additions are a go-cart-like amusement park with
mini-snowmobiles for smaller youngsters and a bungee-tethered trampoline.
Nearby are mountaintop restaurants, bars, and a video
In the background are the Gore Range and Mt. Of The Holy
Other ski areas have closely studied Vail’s on-mountain
diversification, wondering what they can copy.
It’s all downhill
The larger questions are about summer amusements. Are golf
Frisbee courses appropriate? Zip lines? Alpine coasters?
The latter is proposed for Vail Mountain. The coaster cars
would run on metal tracks erected 2 to 10 feet above the ground. Operating
similar to a luge run, with the aid of gravity, the proposed course would be
primarily in the trees, although entirely on national forest.
If this sounds like Disneyland, the question is still worth
asking: How much different is this from tree skiing on $700 worth of boots and
fat skis to mediate the experience with the outdoors?
Somewhat different than coasters are alpine slides, where
the rides are in concrete troughs installed into the mountainsides.
Breckenridge and Winter Park both have such slides that were created in the
1970s, but all or primarily on private land. The side at Durango Mountain
Resort is entirely on federal land.
The Forest Service hasn’t ruled on Vail’s proposal, said
Roger Poirier, winter sports program manager for the White River National
Forest. The review was postponed to allow a review of projects of higher
priority to 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 said.
Bidwell thinks the line should be draw clearly. “I think
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, of which the Forest Service is a subagency,
broad latitude. It does speak to the need to engage the general public in
“It is in the national interest,” states the bill, “to
encourage Americans to take advantage of opportunities during all four season
to engage in outdoor recreational activities that can contribute to their
health and well-being.”
Over the line, they say
Colorado Wild, along with 16 other organizations from across
the West, sent a letter to Udall in July favoring the bill but asking for major
“As written, the proposed legislation could result in the
authorization of absolutely any outdoor recreation activities on public land,”
said 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
As well, the conservation groups object to the statement
that any proposed activity must “harmonize with the natural environment to the
“We’re not against recreation on public lands, and we’re not
against developed recreation on public lands,” says Bidwell. “We do think there
needs to be sideboards that clearly establish 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 per cent 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 Mountian High.
She says as 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 suggests such water parks would be appropriate, even on
federal land. After all, kids love water and this would connect them to the
outdoors. And, she adds, how would these artificial parks be any different than
making snow for skiing?
“We hold summer to a different standard (as to 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.