As if they didn't have enough to worry about after a season of fires and demonstrations, Colorado's largest ski resorts now face a new threat-a deep freeze on all future ski expansions in the White River National Forest.
In August, the U.S. Forest Service unveiled a draft revision to its management plan that, if adopted as policy, would halt any new development on forest lands at Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, Ski Cooper and Copper Mountain. Together, these areas represent 7.6 million skier visits a year-about two-thirds of Colorado's entire skier business.
The preferred USFS plan would clamp down on all recreation-not just skiing-and would put "special emphasis" on protecting wildlife habitat (including the lynx) and biological diversity. This would be accomplished through "active management" of all habitat types through timber harvesting, prescribed burns and structural improvements. Of six alternatives considered for one of the nation's oldest and largest forests (2.27 million acres), the recommended "Alternative D" would retain existing recreational amenities while prohibiting new ones. There are far-reaching implications from this policy. First, it represents a major retreat by the Forest Service from its more recent mandate to promote public access and recreation. Second, it almost certainly is the opening shot for what could become federal policy for all national forests, including one near you. And third, it could have serious economic repercussions for mountain communities from coast to coast-as well as skiers themselves.
An analysis of the plan by Forest Service skiing specialist Erik Martin reveals that the recommended option would do the following:
Cap all future skiing growth over the next 30 years to 9.2 million skier days, although demand is expected to reach 11.5 million skier days.
Create more crowding on the slopes ("higher skier densities") and fewer opportunities for off-piste powder skiing because all or most of the available terrain will be groomed for the majority of skiers and snowboarders.
Although the plan would not specifically prohibit new expansions within existing permit boundaries of the ski areas, the effect of the policy would put in doubt all projects that are not already approved or under construction.
Disallow any new ski areas, including the much-discussed Adam's Rib proposal in Eagle County, near Vail.
Restrict summer use of ski slopes for sightseeing and prohibit any new summer recreation uses.
Reduce the amount of USFS land for skiing from 91,243 acres (included in the previous plan) to 43,195 acres.
If the Forest Service recommendation becomes final, the agency predicts that crowding on the slopes will increase, the cost of skiing (lift tickets and parking) will rise more rapidly because of higher demand for the available amenities, and Colorado's share of the national skier market will shrink.As the November issue of SKI went to press, resorts were still studying the weighty, 1,700-page document, but they clearly were concerned about its impact. Vail Resorts President Andy Daly called it a "head-in-the sand approach to growth" and "contradictory to the best interest of public land use." Daly said that demands for both winter and summer recreation will continue to increase on the Front Range."When the objectives talk of placing emphasis on sustainability as well as on supporting recreation, there's a real contradiction here. We see opportunities for reducing the number of acres allocated to recreation, but to provide for virtually no increase throughout the White River Forest is really naïve. It's going to create the potential for serious overcrowding, higher accident rates and higher ticket rates."Daly said the plan seems calculated to appease a handful of vocal environmentalists but "doesn't meet the needs of the silent majority. There would be no expansion of biicycle trails, cross-country ski trails or downhill skiing. This represents a dramatic shift of Forest Service policy, like swinging the pendulum 180 degrees." Daly appealed to skiers to make their voices heard.The public and the resorts likely will have until the end of November to submit comments to the Forest Service as part of a 120-day comment period requested by some of the stakeholders (normally it is 90 days). The Forest Service rarely hears from skiers themselves, although it gets an avalanche of snail mail and e-mail from environmental groups. The forest management plan is revised every 10 to 15 years. TALK BACK!Send comments to the Supervisor's Office, White River National Forest, P.O. Box 948, Glenwood Springs, CO 81602; (970) 945-2521 or fax (970) 945-3266, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The full report can be viewed on the Forest's website at www.fs.fed.us/r2/whiteriver.