Rep. Joe Neguse is hoping to increase funding for public forest lands by allowing the U.S. Forest Service to keep money generated from ski area permit fees.
Neguse said he plans to introduce the Ski Fee Retention Bill in the next few weeks, a bipartisan effort alongside Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah; and Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H. and the chair of the Congressional Ski and Snowboard Caucus. The group is looking for another Republican cosponsor, as well.
The Ski Fee Retention Bill would allow national forests — including the White River National Forest — to retain fees generated from ski areas, which are usually remitted to the U.S. Treasury. The funding is meant to improve the recreation permitting processes, improve visitor services, and support wildfire planning and coordination.
Of the money retained by national forests, 75% would be set aside specifically for ski area related purposes. The other 25% could be used for other recreation purposes.
The concept was originally introduced in 2018, but Neguse said he wanted to make sure that there was more engagement with local governments before pushing forward. Neguse has zeroed in on the outdoor recreation industry in recent months — one way he hopes to help bolster the economy in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Summit County and the eastern end of Eagle County.
“I pursue these issues because they matter to me personally, they matter to my constituents, they matter to local leadership, and they have tremendous impact on our ability to thrive in Summit County, in Boulder County, in Grand County,” Neguse said.
In a roundtable conversation with the Summit Board of County Commissioners, ski area officials and Forest Service representatives, Neguse asked for stories to share when introducing the bill.
“I’m proud to co-lead the bill, but the more stories that I can tell that you arm me with the easier it will be in sharing with the National Resources Committee that this bill deserves to be expedited,” Neguse said.
Melanie Mills — president of Colorado Ski Country USA, a ski industry trade association — commented on the increasing demand for outdoor recreation. She pointed out that everything done at ski areas is reviewed by the Forest Service, whether it’s construction, snowmaking, expansions or summer operations. Reviews are for environmental impact along with other factors.
“As recreation budgets have suffered over the last decade or more … it has just taken longer and longer for projects to be reviewed and to get the reviews that they need, and this bill will help,” Mills said. “It will bring some of that money, that currently is going to the Treasury and getting reallocated, back to our forests here where it’s generated to help them have the staff that’s needed,” Mills said.
Alan Henceroth, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area’s chief operating officer, said the demand for public lands is “through the roof” in Summit County and across the West. He said that while activities like skiing and camping have been popular for decades, the demand is unlike what’s been seen in previous years with increased ski pass sales and parking issues.
“I think this is going to stick,” Henceroth said. “… It’s a whole new world with people using public lands, and that’s why it’s so important for us to be good at what we do.”
Henceroth added that the White River National Forest needs resources to cater to the people who visit the area’s public lands. Frisco Mayor Hunter Mortensen commented that it’s difficult for the town as the owner of the Frisco Nordic Center to expand trails, and he said funding from the bill could help move things along. Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence added that funding would make it easier to move along ski area projects, which are meant to improve the skier experience.
Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula said there also is a safety component that additional funding to the Forest Service could help address.
“We live in the middle of this forest,” Mamula said. “The majority of our land is forestland. Scott (Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest supervisor) doesn’t have the people to patrol the land so that when we have people that are deciding to camp legally or illegally and they walk away from their campfire, that is a huge danger to the forest, to the people, to all of our livelihoods. … As much of that money that can stay with the Forest Service — they provide the services on the land that the federal government owns — the better.”
Fitzwilliams said funding the bill would more than double the Forest Service’s recreation budget.
“To be able to have the stable resources and specialists to be able to process proposals, do the monitoring, do the administration — all the things we have to do for the ski areas — there are some real advantages to that,” Fitzwilliams said.
Neguse said that while bill introductions are a dime a dozen, he thinks this bill can go all the way with bipartisan and grassroots support.