New legislation encourages summer recreation at ski areas

November 26, 2011

After approval by both the House and the Senate earlier this year, President Barak Obama signed an act on Nov. 6 that has significant implications for ski areas on U.S. Forest Service lands. Locally, the list of such properties includes Mt. Hood Meadows and Cooper Spur ski areas, Ski Bowl, Summit and Timberline Resort.

The Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011 amends the National Forest Ski Area Permit Act of 1986, which allowed only nordic and alpine skiing. The act instructs the USFS to increase seasonal and year-round recreation activities on its lands that are currently subject to ski area permit processes.

In winter, that means other snow sports may be permitted on Forest Service lands; and the more significant impact is in summer, when the legislation opens up the possibility for a variety of recreational activities like mountain bike trails, Frisbee golf courses and zip lines on lands that have long been off-limits to non-winter activities by ski area operators.

"The Forest Service is taking steps to promote job growth every day," said USDA Under Secretary Harris Sherman. "We look forward to welcoming hundreds of thousands more visitors throughout the entire year to their national forests."

USFS press says it averages 27 million visits annually to ski areas across the country, which contributes an estimated $4 billion a year and creates roughly 80,000 jobs. Under the new legislation, the agency estimates hundreds of thousands more visitors to National Forest lands, tens of millions of increased dollars into mountain communities and hundreds of new jobs created.

"It's great," said Matthew Drake, Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Area CEO. "We've been following this legislation for a while, and it's exciting to see it progress. We're still waiting to see what happens with the actual procedures the Forest Service will to come up with to implement the legislation, but it's an exciting change."

Drake said Meadows is definitely interested in summer activities within its permit area, but it will depend on what is suitable for the environment and what is economically viable for the company.

The act is not a green light for ski resorts, as it upholds the environmental rules already in place, namely the National Environmental Policy Act. Any increased activity would have to adhere to NEPA regulations and processes. That would mean potential new summer activities might continue to be restricted from an area, depending on the environmental impact it would have.

"The national forests have always been some of America's greatest playgrounds," said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. "It is exciting that our ski areas will now be able to offer more recreational opportunities and economic benefits."

The act also gives a list of several inclusions that may, "in appropriate circumstances, be authorized," and a list of excluded activities/facilities that will not be allowed.

Inclusions are zip lines, mountain bike terrain parks and trails, Frisbee golf courses and ropes courses. Exclusions are tennis courts, water slides and water parks, swimming pools, golf courses and amusement parks.

Language in the bill states that each new activity shall "encourage outdoor recreation and enjoyment of nature"; … "harmonize with the natural environment of the National Forest System land on which the activity or facility is located"; and "be located within the developed portions of the ski area."

It also states that an activity or facility cannot be authorized if it is determined that "the authorization of the activity or facility would result in the primary recreational purpose of the ski area permit to be a purpose other than skiing and other snow-sports."

The timeline for any actual changes is likely at least a few years out.

"There's still a lot of procedural work that has to be done," Drake said. "We've been having discussions internally for some time, and now that this has passed we're having them in more earnest terms. But we're still looking at a lot of procedural work before anything can be implemented."

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