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Where do you draw the line on use of ski areas?

U.S. ski areas look to four-season resort model

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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 as Whistler.

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 wilderness.

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 “outdoors.”

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 available.

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 Mountain Region.

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 almost swank.

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 parlor.

In the background are the Gore Range and Mt. Of The Holy Cross.

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 public lands.

“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 changes.

“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 areas.”

As well, the conservation groups object to the statement that any proposed activity must “harmonize with the natural environment to the extent practical.”

“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.

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