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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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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.

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