The Battle Lines are Drawn: What it means for other ski areas

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Vail is Ground Zero for a new national offensive that almost certainly will change skiing as we know it, and not necessarily for the better. With a few exceptions, virtually every form of construction or expansion that is proposed for ski areas is being challenged, and not just those projects that reach into so-called roadless areas. Even replacement lifts and improvements to on-mountain lodges are drawing intense opposition.

"Back in the Eighties, when there were controversial new ski area developments proposed at places like Adam's Rib and Catamount, expansions of existing areas were never at issue," said Ed Ryberg, a Forest Service specialist in winter recreation who is based in Denver. "Vail moved into the back bowls and Keystone moved into the Outback with no opposition at all. Now a lot more things are being challenged. And this new aspect of lawlessness is something we've never seen before; it's a whole new level of resistance."

The eco-activists claim they are not picking on skiers-many of whom certainly consider themselves conservationists-but on what they call "industrial-strength recreation." Ski areas, they say, are now a magnet for development interests that bring urban sprawl to the mountains and impinge on the sensitive habitats of flora and fauna.

Naturally, the ski areas are worried they are being labeled as environmental enemies. "These groups have virtually destroyed the timber and extractive industries, and ski resorts are next," argued Jerry Blann, president of Jackson Hole Ski Co., at a recent industry conference in San Francisco.

The prime targets are the Big Four: Vail Resorts, Intrawest, the American Skiing Company and Booth Creek Holdings. But eco-activists are also picking on tiny ski resorts that have no desire to become another Vail. The most extreme example is at Mt. Ashland, Ore., where local residents conducted a grassroots fund-raising drive in 1991 to buy the area from a private owner and convert it to a public facility run by a non-profit association. School kids ski there, and the hill provides an important source of tourism dollars during the normally lean winter months. But a local cell of the Sierra Club (ironically calling itself The Rogue Group) this summer sued the Forest Service for granting the ski area a permit to replace its aging and problem-plagued sewage treatment plant. While the new plant would be a $600,000 state-of-the-art facility with a slightly larger capacity, the Sierra Club claimed that the Forest Service failed to conduct a proper analysis of the project under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In particular, the club argued that the plant could pose a threat to the city's watershed, and that it would enable the ski area to proceed with a planned expansion-which the club also opposes-of a new chairlift and 81 acres of mostly intermediate terrain in the area's existing federal leasehold.

The Sierra Club waited until the old plant had been decertified and crews were ready to start on the new one before filing its suit in Federal District Court. The group sought a preliminary injunction to stop construction, which would have prevented the resort from opening this winter-and perhaps may have put it out of business. But in August, a Portland judge rebuffed the club and upheld the permit's validity. Still, the issue may not be over. The ink was hardly dry on the court decision before eco-activists began organizing demonstrations at the construction site."This is a good example of a case that can give an environmental group a bad name because it has a total lack of proportionality," said Mt. Ashland attorney Steve Odell, who is a specialist in resource law and a former staff lawyer with the Justice Department. "At a certain point you have to step back and ask, 'Why are we here?' You have an environmental group trying to use an environmental statute to stop an environmentally beneficial activity," he says. "Unfortunately, we are going to see more and mo of these kinds of cases, and they are taking quite a few ski operators by surprise. People who work in the mountains because they love the outdoors simply can't understand why they've become targets."

To be sure, the ski industry has had a few well-publicized donnybrooks over the years, such as a controversial plan by the Walt Disney Corporation to develop a new resort at Mineral King in California, and the ill-fated attempt to bring a Winter Olympics to Colorado, both harking back to the activist days of the 1970s. But now the skirmishes are coming at a rapid-fire pace, instigated by groups that are highly organized, experienced in civil disobedience, well-equipped and bankrolled by wealthy outside "angels."

Using the Internet as their rallying point, these groups have formed alliances that extend from Canada to the Mexican border. They post on-line notices of protests and staging areas, and they offer handbooks on obstruction and on how to sway the media. They often have succeeded in turning local newspapers against the ski industry, encouraging investigative reporters to scrutinize every public agency that deals with resorts-especially the U.S. Forest Service. Last winter, a volley of newspaper exposés accused Forest Service supervisors and district rangers of colluding with ski area developers. This game of "gotcha" stretched from the Rockies to the Pacific Northwest, and included every issue from land swaps to new lodges to a new ski area.

Many conservation groups consist of well-intentioned local residents who are legitimately concerned about development issues in their communities. But others (including most of those arrested at Vail) are outside agitators who seem intent on finding a cause. Members of Earth First! roam from state to state, as do members of Cascadia Planet and Ancient Forest Rescue. A group called The Ruckus Society holds "action camps" that train followers in the arts of nonviolent opposition. This organization, as well as others that oppose ski area expansion, have received some of their funding from the Turner Foundation, which is run by billionaire TV media mogul Ted Turner and his wife, Jane Fonda.

On top of strident eco-activism, it seems as if several federal government agencies-anxious to fend off environmental brickbats of their own-are joining the feeding frenzy on ski resorts. The Forest Service has seen its "lead agency" authority over winter recreation on public lands challenged, and sometimes compromised, by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is now stretching its mission to include land-use issues unrelated to pollution; the Corps of Engineers, which is dogging threats to wetlands; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which can trump any expansion that might impact rare or endangered plant and animal species. Thus far, coordination among the various regulatory federal agencies over ski area permit applications has been nearly non-existent.

James R. Lyons, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, oversees the Forest Service and is deeply involved in ski area expansion controversies. Five years ago, when he was appointed to his current post, Lyons encouraged the Forest Service to "partner" with ski resorts in opening up more federal lands to public access. Compared with logging, mining and grazing, skiing covers a minute percentage of national forest lands-less than one-tenth of one percent, or 190,000 acres out of 191 million acres-but can accommodate recreation for millions of people. On top of that, skiing focuses on a concentrated, high-density recreational use, leaving millions of acres available for dispersed uses such as hiking, camping, cross-country skiing and mountain biking.

Now that Lyons has moved to make the Forest Service more recreation-minded, he's jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Instead of providing additional opportunities for the public, the agency stands accused of lining the pockets of corporate ski owners by allowing them to build more lifts and ski runs that boost the value of adjacent real estate holdings. Vail and its sibling resorts of Breckenridge and Keystone stand at the top of the food chain for base area growth. But other areas, including Targhee in Wyoming, several of the Wasatch resorts outside of Salt Lake City, Crystal Mountain in Washington and the proposed new Pelican Butte ski area in Oregon also are engaged in controversial new base expansion projects.

Of the Forest Service's relationship with ski areas, Lyons said: "I don't see this as collusion, but as collaboration. Obviously we have to walk a fine line in this relationship, but our goal is to find areas of agreement among all of the stakeholders so that we can avoid conflict." The Forest Service, he added, does look at the implications of its actions beyond forest boundaries, "but we don't have a regulatory role on private land." That function is left to local governments-planning commissions, city councils and county commissions-which have plenty of authority to reject or modify any development plan.

Still, he added, the ski industry has an obligation to be "up front about its long-term plans and intentions. The most vexing problem for us is real estate. People are asking, 'Are these ski companies or development companies?' The challenge to skiers and to the industry is how these Big Four companies present themselves. If they are about real estate and growth, one wonders how long they can capture the Baby Boom movement before skiers say 'This is too much,'" said Lyons. "Look at what happened to the Forest Service. In the mid-Seventies our agency shifted its focus and put most of its eggs into industrial timber. The public perception of us changed from conservation leaders to clear-cutters, and we've spent the last decade trying to undo that perception."

While the Forest Service has been tilting its image toward recreation, the preliminary version of the White River National Forest Plan that was unveiled in August seems to represent a 180 degree turnaround (see story, page 127). Though it will be subject to public comment before final adoption, the preferred alternative of the plan would prohibit any new expansion beyond existing permit boundaries, affecting most of Colorado's largest ski resorts, including Vail, Beaver Creek, the four Aspen areas, Copper Mountain, Keystone, A-Basin and Breckenridge. At the same time, however, timber harvesting would be moderately increased. The Forest Service acknowledged, in making its recommendations, that its policies could lead to higher skiing costs and crowded slopes.

Clearly, real estate development has been an easy target for branding skiing as the next 800-pound gorilla in the forest. But to say that resorts have shifted all or most of their focus into base area growth ignores some facts about the business. According to an annual report called the Economic Analysis of United States Ski Areas, which is commissioned by the National Ski Areas Association, resorts still overwhelmingly depend on revenues from lift ticket sales as their chief source of income. For the 1997-98 season, which is the most recent data available, more than 77 percent of resort revenues came from lift tickets, food and beverage, ski school lessons and accommodations. Real estate, though a growing segment, weighed in at 5.9 percent.

While the trend is for resorts to diversify into more businesses, selling property is hardly a substitute for having a good snow year and robust skier attendance. Furthermore, ski areas embark on expansions for reasons other than those related to real estate. "You have things like broadening the terrain mix, snowmaking, early and late season uses, and the diverse demands of skiing, snowboarding, telemarking, snowshoeing and tubing," said Geraldine Hughes, Director of Public Policy for the National Ski Areas Association. Even without acquiring more forest land, resorts he pockets of corporate ski owners by allowing them to build more lifts and ski runs that boost the value of adjacent real estate holdings. Vail and its sibling resorts of Breckenridge and Keystone stand at the top of the food chain for base area growth. But other areas, including Targhee in Wyoming, several of the Wasatch resorts outside of Salt Lake City, Crystal Mountain in Washington and the proposed new Pelican Butte ski area in Oregon also are engaged in controversial new base expansion projects.

Of the Forest Service's relationship with ski areas, Lyons said: "I don't see this as collusion, but as collaboration. Obviously we have to walk a fine line in this relationship, but our goal is to find areas of agreement among all of the stakeholders so that we can avoid conflict." The Forest Service, he added, does look at the implications of its actions beyond forest boundaries, "but we don't have a regulatory role on private land." That function is left to local governments-planning commissions, city councils and county commissions-which have plenty of authority to reject or modify any development plan.

Still, he added, the ski industry has an obligation to be "up front about its long-term plans and intentions. The most vexing problem for us is real estate. People are asking, 'Are these ski companies or development companies?' The challenge to skiers and to the industry is how these Big Four companies present themselves. If they are about real estate and growth, one wonders how long they can capture the Baby Boom movement before skiers say 'This is too much,'" said Lyons. "Look at what happened to the Forest Service. In the mid-Seventies our agency shifted its focus and put most of its eggs into industrial timber. The public perception of us changed from conservation leaders to clear-cutters, and we've spent the last decade trying to undo that perception."

While the Forest Service has been tilting its image toward recreation, the preliminary version of the White River National Forest Plan that was unveiled in August seems to represent a 180 degree turnaround (see story, page 127). Though it will be subject to public comment before final adoption, the preferred alternative of the plan would prohibit any new expansion beyond existing permit boundaries, affecting most of Colorado's largest ski resorts, including Vail, Beaver Creek, the four Aspen areas, Copper Mountain, Keystone, A-Basin and Breckenridge. At the same time, however, timber harvesting would be moderately increased. The Forest Service acknowledged, in making its recommendations, that its policies could lead to higher skiing costs and crowded slopes.

Clearly, real estate development has been an easy target for branding skiing as the next 800-pound gorilla in the forest. But to say that resorts have shifted all or most of their focus into base area growth ignores some facts about the business. According to an annual report called the Economic Analysis of United States Ski Areas, which is commissioned by the National Ski Areas Association, resorts still overwhelmingly depend on revenues from lift ticket sales as their chief source of income. For the 1997-98 season, which is the most recent data available, more than 77 percent of resort revenues came from lift tickets, food and beverage, ski school lessons and accommodations. Real estate, though a growing segment, weighed in at 5.9 percent.

While the trend is for resorts to diversify into more businesses, selling property is hardly a substitute for having a good snow year and robust skier attendance. Furthermore, ski areas embark on expansions for reasons other than those related to real estate. "You have things like broadening the terrain mix, snowmaking, early and late season uses, and the diverse demands of skiing, snowboarding, telemarking, snowshoeing and tubing," said Geraldine Hughes, Director of Public Policy for the National Ski Areas Association. Even without acquiring more forest land, resorts have unmet needs to improve parking, modernize lifts, add childcare and increase mid-mountain restaurant capacity, ski school facilities and base lodges. "Customer expectations and demographics are changing constantly, and ski areas have to reposition themselves as multiple-use winter resorts," says Hughes.

Are ski resorts getting much support from their clients? Hardly. Although environmentalists are collectively moving to stop every turn of the shovel, there are few grassroots skier groups to level the playing field-no "Defenders of Skiing."

"It is very difficult to get them mobilized," said Charlie Locke, whose company, Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, owns seven ski areas in Canada. "Skiers will wait in a liftline for 20 minutes, but they won't spend three minutes to write an e-mail letter." Lake Louise and three other resorts in Alberta Province are pursuing legal action against Parks Canada (the country's equivalent of the National Park Service) over a new policy that would cut back ski area operations, cap daily skier capacity, and restrict future expansions in Banff and Jasper national parks. The ski areas have hired attorneys and a high-profile metropolitan newspaper editor in Calgary to combat an onslaught by environmental groups, which contend that ski areas are inappropriate uses in the national parks.

Even when there is overwhelming local community support for a project, coalitions of environmental groups often bury the pro-skier contingents in the war of words that is waged in the daily media. Near Klamath Falls, Ore., a long-standing proposal to build a $36 million ski resort with eight chairlifts and a gondola at Pelican Butte in Winema National Forest, just south of Crater Lake, drew nearly 11,000 public comments to the area's draft environmental impact statement last spring. Proponents of the ski area outnumbered opponents by more than 2-to-1, with 69 percent favoring development. Most of those came from Southern Oregon and Northern California. By contrast, the majority of opponents were from outside of that region.Building Pelican Butte, supporters argued, would wean local towns away from their dependency on a timber-based economy. But 22 conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and the Oregon Natural Resources Council, would rather have the Forest Service declare Pelican Butte an official wilderness area, claiming that such a designation is necessary to protect bald eagles and the endangered spotted owl.

Bruce Hamilton, conservation director of the Sierra Club's national office in San Francisco, insists that his organization is not opposed to all ski expansions and new developments. "We are not in blind opposition to progress, but in opposition to blind progress," he said. "Turning ski areas into theme parks is ruining the thing we came to enjoy in the first place. At some point, enough is enough." Obviously, for many hard-core activists, that point has been reached, and now they're ready to break out the "Skiers Go Home" signs.

What does this new and sometimes militant environmental challenge mean for skiers? It means that skiers may pay more for a lower quality experience, with fewer new lifts and decreased snowmaking. It means that diversifying opportunities for more types of winter recreation activities may be stymied. It means that local communities may lose their small, marginally-profitable or publicly subsidized ski areas.

Ten years ago, no one would have dreamed that winter sports would be cast in the same light as timber and mining. But now skiing is being called the next extractive industry, rather than a socially-beneficial form of recreation. Bill Tilleman, an attorney who is representing the ski areas in Alberta's national parks, isn't particularly optimistic."I'm afraid that what we've experienced thus far," he said, "is just the beginning."rts have unmet needs to improve parking, modernize lifts, add childcare and increase mid-mountain restaurant capacity, skii school facilities and base lodges. "Customer expectations and demographics are changing constantly, and ski areas have to reposition themselves as multiple-use winter resorts," says Hughes.

Are ski resorts getting much support from their clients? Hardly. Although environmentalists are collectively moving to stop every turn of the shovel, there are few grassroots skier groups to level the playing field-no "Defenders of Skiing."

"It is very difficult to get them mobilized," said Charlie Locke, whose company, Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, owns seven ski areas in Canada. "Skiers will wait in a liftline for 20 minutes, but they won't spend three minutes to write an e-mail letter." Lake Louise and three other resorts in Alberta Province are pursuing legal action against Parks Canada (the country's equivalent of the National Park Service) over a new policy that would cut back ski area operations, cap daily skier capacity, and restrict future expansions in Banff and Jasper national parks. The ski areas have hired attorneys and a high-profile metropolitan newspaper editor in Calgary to combat an onslaught by environmental groups, which contend that ski areas are inappropriate uses in the national parks.

Even when there is overwhelming local community support for a project, coalitions of environmental groups often bury the pro-skier contingents in the war of words that is waged in the daily media. Near Klamath Falls, Ore., a long-standing proposal to build a $36 million ski resort with eight chairlifts and a gondola at Pelican Butte in Winema National Forest, just south of Crater Lake, drew nearly 11,000 public comments to the area's draft environmental impact statement last spring. Proponents of the ski area outnumbered opponents by more than 2-to-1, with 69 percent favoring development. Most of those came from Southern Oregon and Northern California. By contrast, the majority of opponents were from outside of that region.Building Pelican Butte, supporters argued, would wean local towns away from their dependency on a timber-based economy. But 22 conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and the Oregon Natural Resources Council, would rather have the Forest Service declare Pelican Butte an official wilderness area, claiming that such a designation is necessary to protect bald eagles and the endangered spotted owl.

Bruce Hamilton, conservation director of the Sierra Club's national office in San Francisco, insists that his organization is not opposed to all ski expansions and new developments. "We are not in blind opposition to progress, but in opposition to blind progress," he said. "Turning ski areas into theme parks is ruining the thing we came to enjoy in the first place. At some point, enough is enough." Obviously, for many hard-core activists, that point has been reached, and now they're ready to break out the "Skiers Go Home" signs.

What does this new and sometimes militant environmental challenge mean for skiers? It means that skiers may pay more for a lower quality experience, with fewer new lifts and decreased snowmaking. It means that diversifying opportunities for more types of winter recreation activities may be stymied. It means that local communities may lose their small, marginally-profitable or publicly subsidized ski areas.

Ten years ago, no one would have dreamed that winter sports would be cast in the same light as timber and mining. But now skiing is being called the next extractive industry, rather than a socially-beneficial form of recreation. Bill Tilleman, an attorney who is representing the ski areas in Alberta's national parks, isn't particularly optimistic."I'm afraid that what we've experienced thus far," he said, "is just the beginning."