ASPEN - The supervisor of the sprawling White River National Forest expects numerous ski resorts eventually to submit proposals to expand summer activities once they see how the review of Vail's extensive plan goes.
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said ski industry executives have told him they see the biggest opportunity to expand their revenues by adding summer activities. While many ski areas, including Aspen Mountain and Snowmass, offer summer gondola rides, restaurant lunches and limited activities, the season is largely untapped.
Vail hopes to change that with its Epic Discovery proposal, which it unveiled in July. The plan includes an intricate network of climbing walls, ropes courses, trails and zip lines, which would offer a cruise through the forest canopy. Rope courses will provide challenges on routes closer to the ground. The review by the Forest Service under the National Environmental Policy Act is under way but a long way from complete. Ten other ski resorts, including the four at Aspen-Snowmass, use public lands for their ski areas.
"All of them are kind of watching what Vail's doing," Fitzwilliams said. "They're the first ones out of the chute."
Fitzwilliams was part of a panel at a National Ski Areas Association conference in Utah last week that discussed summer activities at ski areas. It was clear, he said, that the industry is looking at summers to boost their revenues.
"Without a question, this is a high priority for ski areas," Fitzwilliams said.
Epic Discovery is the first major summer-use plan proposed since U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., shepherded legislation through Congress in 2011 that defines what type of summer activities can be developed on public lands leased by ski areas. The Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act prohibits golf courses, tennis courts and amusement parks. Four features are specifically allowed - zip lines, ropes courses, pedestrian and cycling trails and disc-golf courses.
Udall's legislation leaves one big question unanswered for the Forest Service. It doesn't address whether alpine coasters are allowed, Fitzwilliams said. An alpine coaster allows passengers of small cars traveling on raised rails to scream down the mountain, using gravity to follow the natural contours of the terrain.
"Coasters were not identified in the legislation," Fitzwilliams said.
Staff members at the national headquarters of the Forest Service are working on rules that align with the legislation. The teams at the supervisor's offices will rely on those rules while reviewing projects such as Vail's. Fitzwilliams said he will look for help from the national office on how to handle the review of alpine coasters.
Meanwhile, the supervisor's office staff will conduct field work at Vail Mountain this summer. A draft Environmental Impact Statement will be produced that looks at various options for Vail's proposal. The public will get a chance to comment on the Forest Service's preferred alternative.
Vail hopes to have the elements of the project in place by summer 2014. The Forest Service makes no promises about the length of time for its review. An advance public-comment step in the process produced less interest than Fitzwilliams anticipated. Only 29 comments were submitted, he said.
Aspen Skiing Co. officials have made it clear in the past that they intend to expand their summer-activity menu, but they haven't said when. Skico already has expanded its pedestrian and cycling trail network on the Elk Camp section of Snowmass. It offers gondola rides and provides a climbing wall, playground and small fishing pond. Summer tourists have a wide range of interests, so ski areas figure they must offer a wide range of activities.