A congressional bill that would return a portion of the $37 million in annual rent paid by ski areas to the national forests where they do business — currently, the money goes to the U.S. Treasury’s general fund — is unlikely to progress this year as a standalone measure, but may still be considered as part of a larger package, a legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton (CO-O3) said Monday.
The Ski Area Fee Retention Act (H.R. 5171) passed through the House Natural Resources Committee in mid-July with unanimous consent, according to Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association. But its trajectory in the current budget season now seems less certain.
The bipartisan legislation was created to support recreation on areas used by the ski industry in Colorado and elsewhere that operate on U.S. Forest Service lands. Returning up to half of the fees to the jurisdiction where they are collected is seen as a way to reduce a bottleneck of projects awaiting review and approval, and also provide money for things like visitor services and safety education.
“It would allow us to staff to the level where we can react to projects in a more efficient way,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor for the White River National Forest, on Monday.
Annual visitation to the WRNF, which includes iconic destinations like the Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake, is in the 13.5 million range, a figure that Fitzwilliams said exceeds that of annual visits to Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone combined.
“We love for people to come, but it’s challenging to keep up with the annual demand,” he said.
The annual budget for the White River National Forest, which includes pots of money appropriated by Congress, fees and cost-recovery agreements, is $15 million to $17 million, Fitzwilliams said. That’s just over half the budget he directed 18 years ago, when the agency operated with $26 million to $29 million annually.
For the 2017-18 ski season, the 11 ski resorts operating on the White River National Forest paid $20,018,000 to use the federal land, Fitzwilliams said. Of that, the four Aspen Skiing Co. resorts contributed $2,439,077, and Sunlight Mountain Resort paid $20,000 to the general fund of the U.S. Treasury.
Across the nation, there are 122 areas, out of about 435 total ski resorts, operating on federal land that could be affected by the proposed legislation, according to the National Ski Areas Association.
“The 122 ski resorts that operate on public land occupy less than 1/10th of 1 percent of national forest system lands,” wrote Link in an email.
They are located in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming and accommodate 60 percent of total U.S. skier and snowboarder visits, she said.
During NSAA’s annual meeting in May, the bill “absolutely was discussed. It’s something we’re constantly giving our membership updates on and asking for their support,” said NSAA President Kelly Pawlak.
Jeff Hanle, Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of communications, said the company is fully on board with the bill.
“We support keeping more of the funds the national forests generate at the point of origin,” Hanle said. “It helps with all aspects of maintaining and operating a national forest at the local and regional level.”
Delays common in many regions
Alterra Mountain Co., which includes some Aspen Skiing Co. ownership, sent Ron Cohen, interim president of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, to testify in support in Washington, D.C., last month, said spokeswoman Kristin Rust. Alterra’s Colorado holdings include Steamboat and Winter Park.
Fitzwilliams said that if the bill were to pass, “I don’t know if it would encourage more investment. But I think it would align things better.”
NSAA’s Link said it used to be that only some areas of the country, including the Pacific Northwest region, had serious issues with delays in various administrative processes. Now, it is commonplace across the Forest Service.
“Their delays and complete ‘pause’ in even considering any applications for a nine-month period is what triggered the original introduction of this measure by Sen. [Ron] Wyden a few years ago,” Link wrote. “While Region 6 might have been the first region to experience such delays, at this time they are common across many regions.
“The agency literally does not have the staff it needs to administer ski area permits and review project proposals in a timely manner.”
The Ski Area Fee Retention Act was expected to head to the House floor for a vote, but that now appears unlikely this year, according to the spokeswoman for Tipton.
“Our office will continue to work for the remainder of the year to see this bill included in a larger legislative package,” said Kelsey Mix, Tipton’s communications director.
“We expect to consider a public lands package before the end of the year, and this bill would be a good candidate for inclusion,” she said Monday.
According to NSAA’s Link, “On the Senate side (S 2501) we are hoping for a hearing on the bill in the early fall.”
Its bipartisan supporters include four Democratic and four Republican senators, including Michael Bennet (D-CO) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), and representatives Doug Lamborn (R-CO-5) and Mia Love (R-Utah-4) and Democrats Tom O’Halleran of Arizona and Colorado’s Diana DeGette