Tough Crowd

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Attorney Tim Sanford of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., has been skiing for more than two

decades. But these days, he says, overcrowded slopes at the major resorts are making skiing riskier than ever. "You've got way too many people using the ski slope. It's like an anthill," he says. "I go skiing to relax, and to me it's not relaxing to constantly feel like I'm moments away from being creamed by somebody."

If you, too, have had the feeling that the slopes have become more crowded lately, you're probably right. Even though the number of U.S. skiers hasn't increased much in the past decade, several factors have conspired to crowd the snow. One has been an explosion in low-cost season passes, often running in the $200 to $400 range. Not coincidentally, skiershave set all-time records for U.S. visits in two of the past four seasons, and came close to the record 57.6 million visits again last year.

Improved lifts also contribute to congestion. The advent of high-speed quads and six-person chairs has virtually eliminated long lift lines. But the flip side is that all those skiers who were once standing in line are now making turns.

Another factor is the wider lines generally taken by carvers and snowboarders, which adds to a feeling of crowding. Skiers are increasingly complaining about picking their way through throngs and constantly looking over their shoulders to spot collisions in the making.

Most resorts would be happy to address crowding with a simple solution: expansion. As Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, says, "The number of days that ski areas are at capacity is increasing. What does a business do when demand exceeds capacity? If you owned a theater, you'd put in more seats."

It isn't that simple. Most major ski resorts-particularly those in the West-operate on U.S. Forest Service land, and expansion must be approved by the agency. That process can take a decade or longer and cost millions of dollars.

Ed Ryberg, a Forest Service winter sports specialist for the Rocky Mountain region, explains, "The difficulty of expanding a ski area is that the process is detailed and provides for a lot of public input. You also have (local governments) with jurisdiction, and addressing their issues can be quite time-consuming." Meanwhile, ski resorts must pay consultants, and also routinely agree to pay the Forest Service's costs as a way of accelerating the process.

Doug Wales, marketing director for Bridger Bowl in Montana, which is in its seventh year of the federal approval process (see sidebar), says, "It can become very bureaucratic, dealing with agencies. They might be short on biologists-there's only one biologist for this whole region. You spend a lot of money waiting for things to happen."

Over the past several years, Colorado's Vail and Telluride went through contentious federal assessments, but ultimately earned approvals. On the other hand, a proposed expansion at Crested Butte in the mid-'90s encountered so much opposition that the resort abandoned its proposal. John Norton, ex-CEO of Crested Butte, recalls, "The company couldn't motivate the population to support it and gave up."

In a process that has taken eight years and cost $4.2 million, Washington's Crystal Mountain has been forced to downsize an expansion partly due to opposition from the Crystal Conservation Coalition. The area gained tentative Forest Service approval for a 300-acre expansion after it dumped plans to build a lift in a popular backcountry area. The resort still might face litigation over the plan.

The fact is that the process can be so difficult and the result so uncertain that many resorts that would like to expand don't even try. According to one industry executive, "Ski area operators are spending more money within their existing footprint to improve uphill capacity and improve restaurants and facilities rather than embark on what can be the incredibly frustrating, expensivee and sometimes futile task of significant expansion."

And it might get tougher yet. In the late '90s, Colorado's White River National Forest, home to 11 ski areas, released the controversial draft of a forest management plan that prohibited ski areas from expanding-period. But after Congressman Scott McInnis, then chairman of the House forestry subcommittee, intervened, the agency allowed for limited expansion. Still, the White River proposal could be a bellwether. Ski resort consultant Bruce Erickson says, "There's an ongoing trend to limit the ability of ski areas to expand. I suspect it will get more rigorous."

Meanwhile, attorney Sanford says he's avoiding major resorts on weekends and has bought a condo between Utah's Snowbasin and Powder Mountain. "We bought there because we don't like to ski at the crowded areas anymore. It seems like we were always paranoid about getting hit by some out-of-control skier or boarder."

DECEMBER 2004