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Comments sought on year-round activities at ski areas on public lands

Staff Writer

The United States Forest Service (USFS) published a notice in the federal register Saturday, Oct. 2, seeking public comment on drafted and proposed rule changes to criteria used to evaluate activities and facilities allowed at privately operated ski areas on USFS lands. Evaluation of year-round recreation and related facilities is currently, and will continue to be, based on the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act (SAROEA), signed by President Obama on Nov. 7, 2011.

The SAROEA act permits and encourages year-round recreation opportunities at ski areas operating on USFS lands with the objective of boosting rural economies year round while upholding environmental standards that safeguard public lands. The act served to amend the National Forest Ski Area Permit Act (NFSAPA) of 1986, which allowed only Nordic and alpine skiing on USFS lands occupied by ski areas. In addition to allowing additional snow sports in these areas, the new legislation enables ski area visitors to pursue year-round recreation opportunities such as mountain biking, frisbee golf and zip lining.

Not all summer activities (or winter activities) will be permitted. Approved activities under the new proposed evaluation criteria will be natural resource based, encourage enjoyment of nature and promote outdoor recreation. Activities and related infrastructures that are considered destructive to the natural environment include, but are not limited to, the building of water parks, golf courses, amusement parks and tennis courts. These will not be approved by the USFS due to their incongruence with its mission: “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of our nationals forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”

Additionally, the protection of natural resources remains a priority under the newly proposed evaluation guidelines written in accordance with SAROEA. Any and all facilities built to encourage year-round, resource-based recreation will be subject to the same review and approval process as facilities built to enhance traditional winter ski area recreation such as new lifts and trails.

The intention of the 2011 legislative measure was to increase summer visits to ski areas located on USFS lands with the potential to sustain more jobs in rural areas and bring additional monies to local economies. The SAROEA expansion of the NFSAPA act was based on the idea that additional seasonal and year-round recreational activities are important to the long-term viability of ski areas and surrounding rural economies.

The measure also helped to boost winter visits to these areas by creating more diverse recreation opportunities — in 2011, 27 million people visited the 122 ski areas occupying USFS lands, contributing approximately $4 billion to rural economies during the winter.

Proposed rule changes outlined in the notice would be used to definitively establish criteria to guide the USFS in the evaluation of ski area proposals. In addition, these changes would provide additional guidance for management of recreational uses by the nonpaying public within ski area boundaries such as hiking and snowshoeing.

The agency had proposed the changes because current directives limit the criteria used to determine what additional recreational activities and related facilities may be approved at ski areas on USFS lands. In addition, current SAROEA law contains non-exhaustive lists of activities that are allowed and prohibited on ski area lands and a list of prohibited activities and facilities is not included in the current enforcement directive published Aug. 5 of this year. All proposed rule changes and clarifications are intended to assist officials in determining whether proposed activities are in accordance with the intent of SAROEA.

To get some perspective on how proposed changes might have local effects, The SUN spoke with Davey Pitcher about operations at Wolf Creek Ski Area, which operates on USFS lands. Pitcher described how the ski area has not actively pursued summer operations for a variety of reasons, including unpredictable weather at high elevations. Due to this and other factors, Pitcher explained that the focus at Wolf Creek is on winter operations.

In addition, Pitcher described how the mountain at Durango Mountain Resort is better suited for summer recreation because it sits at a lower elevation and is closer to a population center. Durango Mountain Resort has a highly developed summer recreation program.

Pitcher explained that he supports the development of additional summer activities and associated facilities at ski areas as long as the newly-supported activities fall within the context of what would typically be done without uphill transportation on a mountain. He articulated disapproval of infrastructure and activities that do not blend well with natural mountain surroundings.

“Public land should be used for what historically took place on it,” Pitcher said.

With regard to ski area use by the nonpaying public, Pitcher explained that each ski area has to manage uphill traffic and nonpaying public uses differently, based on localized resources and challenges. Since the 1980s, a free snowshoeing and Nordic trail has been available at Wolf Creek Ski Area.

The public has 60 days from the date the notice was published in the federal register to comment on the proposed rule changes (comments will be received through Dec. 2 of this year). Comments will be considered in the development of final directives. Instructions on how to comment on the proposed changes are contained in the notice on the federal register. To access the notice, visit https://www.federalregister.gov/, click “browse this and other dates” at the top right of the page and click on Oct. 2 on the calendar that appears. The notice is the only USFS notice published that day and is listed under “Agriculture Department.”

Dana.Hayward@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on October 31, 2013.