Ski areas: Not just for skiing any longer

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A new law allowing for the expansion of off-season activities at ski resorts won’t change much at southern Colorado-area resorts in the near future. But it’s been stoking a statewide dialogue about what’s appropriate for ski areas on federal lands — and what’s better left to the amusement parks.

The Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011, or HR 765, was introduced by U.S. Rep. Mark Udall (DColo.) and passed Congress in November. In a nutshell, it amends the National Forest Ski Area Permit Act of 1986 to standardize ground rules for new off-season uses.

The new law was needed to keep up with changing demands for and by ski areas, explained Davey Pitcher, CEO and mountain manager at Wolf Creek Ski Area.

“When the Forest Service started permitting ski areas, that’s exactly what they were. Virtually every ski area in Colorado would shut down in the spring and reopen in the fall,” he said.

But in the 1980s, a real-estate boom hit Summit County, and resorts like Vail and Breckenridge needed to find ways to keep up.

“The whole idea was to create a use for their beds in the summer,” he said. “Now, there are zip lines, bungee-jumping, rockclimbing walls, all these other kinds of summer activities. I think the intent was to allow permitting for some of these other activities to be easier than harder.”

HR 765 also lays down some guidelines for permitting off-season activities, something that has been praised by environmental groups. It requires all off-season activities to encourage outdoor recreation and enjoyment of nature, harmonize with the natural environment, be located within the developed portions of the ski area, and comply with any local laws and land-management plans.

Mixed use

The passage of the new law comes at a time when ski resorts have already been building some off-season activities, using a patchwork of philosophies and permitting standards.

Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort has maintained an alpine slide for some time on Forest Service land, as well as hiking and mountain-biking trails. They also run their chair lift in summer, and recently added a zip line (a pulley suspended on a cable that lets users speed downhill by hanging on or attaching to the pulley) on private acreage in the base area.

Kim Oyler, director of communications for the resort, said the new law does clarify the process for expanding off-season uses at ski areas, but its new limits on environmental degradation won’t curb much at Purgatory.

“We try to be good stewards of the environment,” she said. “We constantly review what we are doing to make sure we are being good stewards. We want to focus on enhancing our guest experiences as well.”

Henry Hornberger, general manager at Utah’s Brian Head Ski Resort near Cedar City, said HR 765 isn’t likely to have a huge impact because their off-season activities are minimal. They run a lift in summer and offer mountain-biking with an “extensive trail network,” he said. The bottom portion of the mountain is on private property, so the new law wouldn’t cover it.

But Hornberger said he supports any move to enhance ski areas for use during the off season. “My hope is over time, consumers become more dialed in to going to resorts for summer vacations,” he said.

Pitcher, at Wolf Creek, takes a different view. He advocates caution when it comes to building out ski areas, particularly those on public lands.

“The big problem is, what’s compatible with normal activity?” he said. “It can be argued that using a chairlift to transport bikers is natural. Climbing walls I can see, because people are learning a sport. Zip lines and alpine slides, I think they’re pushing the envelope, quite frankly.”

Pitcher said hikers and cyclists are welcome and encouraged to use the access roads at Wolf Creek. But there are no plans to expand off-season activities at the resort – and he feels that plans to expand other resort offerings should be considered carefully.

“I’ve heard some may want to put some amusement rides in,” he said. “I think there needs to be a test of reasonableness. There’s got to be a line that’s drawn somewhere.”

Keeping watch

Paul Joyce is the Durango-based director of the Ski Area Citizens Coalition, which recently published an annual list of the best and worst ski resorts in terms of environmental friendliness.

He said overall, his organization is pleased with HR 765 because Udall and his team “took the time to clarify the intent and to … make sure it was appropriately supporting activities that should be happening and not opening doors to activity that would be inappropriate on that landscape.”

To Joyce’s mind, Forest Service lands are “first and foremost natural resources,” he said. “I think we need to make sure that the kinds of recreation experiences we’re creating are still primarily about those natural resources – and not sort of an industrialized entertainment-park type of approach.”

And while he declined to make judgments about specific activities that may or may not be suitable on public lands, he said his group generally raises a flag about new developments in places were they may not be needed and where they may not be serving stated goals.

His group has long been entrenched in opposition to a controversial proposed expansion at Breckenridge, for example, saying it fails to address the purported benefit to the public, and threatens wildlife on the affected lands and in nearby waters.

Overall, Joyce says, “there needs to be a clear line drawn between the proposed activities and the needs that they serve for the public – not just the coffers of those ski areas.”

How do local areas stack up?

The Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition, an environmental group, came out with its annual ranking of Colorado’s ski areas last month, and it contains both kudos and fingerwagging for nearby resorts.

Notably, Wolf Creek Ski Area passed with flying colors, receiving an A grade mainly for its environmental stewardship. Durango Mountain earned a B, with high marks for some aspects of environmental stewardship but lower marks for others, including protection of nearby watersheds.

Brian Head, near Cedar City, Utah, earned a C, with most points off because it doesn’t participate in many programs to use green technologies like recycling, or conserve energy and fuel. Brian Head joined Flagstaff ’s Arizona Snowbowl and Summit County’s Breckenridge in the group’s list of the worst 10 ski resorts in the country.

No Four Corners-area resorts made the organization’s national Top 10 list. To see the list, along with individual reports for each ski area, visit www.skiareacitizens.com.

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From January 2012.