VAIL — The federal government has never been known as a nimble beast when it comes to reviewing its rules. Throw new rules into the mix, and the beast gets more cumbersome.
When Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz announced the company’s “Epic Discovery” summer recreation proposal for Vail Mountain, he said it could take 12 to 18 months to get the required approvals from the U.S. Forest Service. Now, more than 18 months after that announcement, it looks like the Forest Service’s first “record of decision” on the proposals may come about two years after the announcement.
Forest Service officials say there’s nothing wrong with the resort company’s proposal — in fact, they believe plans for summer recreation at ski areas are an appropriate use of public lands. Again, though, the wheels move slowly. This time, the slowdown can be traced, in part, to the fact that the Forest Service has to go through both its normal approval process at the local level, and also has to formulate new rules at the national level, too.
Following The Rules
Those national rules come from the Forest Service making its own rules based on the 2011 Ski Area Recreational Opportunities Enhancement Act sponsored by Colorado Senator Mark Udall.
That act was proposed, and passed, in order to allow ski areas to be in the summer recreation business, since previous laws restricted ski areas to winter use.
Don Dressler, the Forest Service’s mountain resort program manager for the Rocky Mountain region, said any time a new use is proposed for a ski area, it has to go through a review process mandated by the National Environmental Protection Act. That involves reviewing proposals, and, in this case, drafting an Environmental Impact Statement. That requires issuing draft proposals, allowing public comment periods, then issuing proposed rulings. Those proposed rulings are also subject to public review before the agency can issue a “record of decision,” which essentially finalizes any proposal.
Dressler said there haven’t been many comments on the plan so far, and those have been mostly supportive of the proposal. That could be because the proposals, while on public lands, are all within ski area boundaries.
Three Options for Action
Holy Cross District Ranger Dave Neely said the current process includes three options for action: no action; accepting Vail Resorts’ proposal in full; and accepting only the parts of the proposal that are specifically allowed in the 2011 legislation.
In this case, what’s allowed is activities including ziplines and new mountain bike trails. Climbing walls and mountain coasters — which Vail Resorts calls a “Forest Flyer” — are subject to new rulings.
Neely said it’s possible that even without new federal rules, a local decision that hews closely to the law could be ready by mid-July or so.
Ready by 2016?
If that happens, don’t expect anything new on Vail Mountain this summer. Vail Resorts Senior Manager of Communications for Vail Mountain Liz Biebl wrote in an email that summer approval would allow the company to start some projects, but none would be ready by the end of the summer season. A summer start this year could mean some activities would be ready for the public by the summer of 2015. Other activities would be built next year, and ready for use in 2016.
While Vail was the first ski area to submit a proposal, there are others in the process now. While the national office will set the guidelines, Neely said every resort is different, and will require a close look.
But, Neely said, Forest Service officials who oversee ski areas already know those areas very well.
“The challenge is providing a timely response to a reasonable request,” he said.