Major Ski Area Legislation Unanimously Passes House

The 112th congress can’t agree on much of anything. Probably the red state folks don’t agree the sky is blue, and the blue state folks probably don’t believe blood is red, but when it comes to giving ski areas on federal land a shot at doing more business (officially, the bill is called the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011), the vote in the House of Representatives last night was 394 in favor, none opposed — with 39 no-shows.

What the act does, as we mentioned in May, is give ski areas that operate on Forest Service land the right to widen their scope of off-season offerings, with less red tape to wade through (the right probably calls it “blue tape”).

So while Winter Park already offers lift-served mountain biking, for instance, expanding such a trail network, or adding more hiking trails, zip lines, and so on, will now be easier. The bill explicitly restricts growth of golf courses, tennis courts, and other offerings that are less in keeping with the mountain ethos — and which also tend to incur more rigorous need for environmental oversight — exhibit A, Jay Peak in yesterday’s news.

The bill amends the Ski Area Permit Act of 1986, which (according to ski industry lobbyists) made adding such off-season attractions difficult. Further, it adds words like “mountain biking” and “snowboard” to legalese that didn’t even include such nouns back in the day.

The main attraction here for Congress is that the new bill was couched as jobs legislation that will cost the taxpayer not one thin dime and may modestly boost revenue to federal coffers through concession fees.

For ski areas on forest land there could be a major boon, depending on where such resorts are located. In Colorado, 22 of 26 ski resorts are either wholly or partly on federal land. In Vermont it’s more of a mixed bag, but 13 states have major ski areas on federal forestland, and while the National Ski Areas Association says there are 58.6 million annual skier/snowboarder visits each year the NSAA says only 6.9 percent of their annual dough comes from non-skier activities. If ski areas are going to survive into a less-snowy future, adding attractions like mountain slides (also covered in the bill), hiking, and mountain biking will be key.

And, no, climate change was not emphasized in this bipartisan effort, and you don’t have to scratch your head as to why. Even if resort owners are well aware that a less snowy future is likely, the issue is divisive and easily could’ve scuttled this effort before it started.

Other environmental concerns should largely be addressed by preventing vast, “theme-park-level” development, and environmental groups may see the bill as a net positive, since ski areas occupy less than one-tenth of one percent of Forest Service lands, meaning more people concentrated in one place are less likely to harm vast ecosystems.

Now a Senate version needs to pass.

Colorado Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat, and Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, a Republican, co-sponsored a version last year but it died in committee. This year it’s received approval from the committee on energy resources and awaits full Senate debate.

Photo: Copper Mountain Credit: Courtesy

This environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. Additional reporting by Bob Berwyn/Summit County Citizens Voice.

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