Area resorts pay $20 million in forest fees
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The White River National Forest is reaping increasing revenues in fees from Vail Resorts and other ski-area operators that use public lands.
The 11 resorts in the White River National Forest paid $19.94 million in fees in fiscal 2016 compared with $17.92 million in 2015, according to the U.S. Forest Service. That is an increase of 11 percent.
Vail alone paid more than $6.5 million in fees for 2016, by far the most paid by any of the 11 resorts. Together, the four Vail Resorts-owned resorts — Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckrenridge and Keystone — paid about $18 million in fees.
The stout increase reflects the strong year for the Colorado ski industry in 2015-16, when it topped 13 million skier visits for the first time, said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, a state trade group.
The U.S. Forest Service uses a complicated formula to determine the fees the ski areas must pay for revenue generated on national forest lands. Skier visits and related business, such as lessons, figure into the fee. The agency uses a sliding scale, so smaller ski areas and those that don’t use a lot of federal land in their operations pay a smaller fee.
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Vail Mountain paid the highest fee. Its fee alone was larger than what Skico paid for its four ski areas. Vail Mountain’s fee soared 9.3 percent to $6.53 million. Breckenridge, owned by Vail Resorts, was a distant second in the size of the fee.
Funds to the feds
The ski-area fees helped the White River National Forest generate about $10 million more in revenue than it spent in fiscal year 2016, according to Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
In addition to the ski-area fees, the Forest collects revenue from oil and gas leases, timber sales and grazing.
“The problem is, of course, we don’t see any of that — it goes to the U.S. Treasury,” Fitzwilliams said. “That’s Congress’ choice of where the money goes.”
Congress allocates the budget of the Forest Service. The agency’s Rocky Mountain Regional Office divides the funds among the national forests in its jurisdiction.
The White River’s budget for fiscal 2016 was about $16 million — or about $4 million less than what was reaped from ski area fees alone.
Fees increase, budget falls
At the same time ski-area fees are increasing, the White River National Forest has been forced to reduce its budget and staff, including the number of workers overseeing the ski industry.
Fitzwilliams said there were eight full-time equivalent staff members working as winter sports administrators and other positions related to the ski industry seven years ago. There are now 4.5 positions devoted to working with the ski industry.
Fitzwilliams said he has fewer staff members available to review ski areas’ applications for lift replacements and other proposals to build infrastructure on national forest lands.
“I’ve had to tell the resorts, ‘We can’t move forward at the pace you want,’” Fitzwilliams said.
The White River staff talks to ski-area representatives about their proposals, then sets priorities. Some projects must wait.
The Aspen Skiing Company, for example, was told that Forest Service staff wouldn’t be able to work on an updated master plan or specific projects for Aspen Mountain in 2016, according to Fitzwilliams. Breckenridge was asked to delay submitting its plan for summer amenities for a year.
Ski resorts pay for third-party contractors to perform studies required by the federal National Environmental Policy Act. The resorts also pay a portion of the Forest Service’s costs to review the plans.
Nevertheless, the agency cannot keep pace. Mills said ski areas have money to invest in infrastructure when business is up, like it is now.
Fitzwilliams said the ski areas are justifiably frustrated that reviews are taking longer at a time when the fees they are paying are increasing. Some officials in government and the ski industry want the system revamped so that fees generated in the forests stay in the forests.
Industry seeks fee retention
Mills said Colorado Ski Country USA and partners have laid the groundwork in the past for legislation on fee retention. The concept of fee retention by national forests has received bipartisan support in the past.
But where such legislation stands among the priorities of Congress is unclear, she acknowledged. The Republican Party controls both the House and Senate and has vowed to work with President-elect Trump on an aggressive agenda after he takes office in January.
“It’s a priority for us and we’ll be working on it with the new Congress,” Mills said.
Another way that funds could be freed up, Mills noted, is if the federal government reworks the way it funds fighting forest fires. As it stands, firefighting reduces funds available for recreation and other Forest Service responsibilities.
Meanwhile, Fitzwilliams expects that fees paid by ski areas will continue to rise. The increasing revenue reflects the greater emphasis resorts have placed on summer business, Fitzwilliams said. Vail has been at the forefront of attracting mountain bikers, hikers and sightseers to its slopes during summers. Other resorts, such as Snowmass, have submitted proposals for substantial increases in summer amenities.
The White River also anticipates reaping more in fees from increases winter business.
For the foreseeable future, those fees will be plowed back into the national treasury.