Vail, Beaver Creek, other ski areas in White River pay record $20.18M in fees to federal government

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspens off the East Lake Creek Trail in the White River National Forest on Wednesday, Dec. 27, in Edwards. The budget for the White River National Forest is under scrutiny on where the funds generated end up and are used for.
Chris Dillmann | |

ski area payments

The 11 ski areas in the White River National Forest paid $20.18 million in fees to the U.S. Forest Service in fiscal 2017. That was up marginally from $19.94 million the year before. Following is the amount paid by each of the 11 ski areas and the difference from the prior year.

• Vail Mountain: $6,393,503 (-2.1 percent)

• Beaver Creek: $1,588,723 (0 percent)

• Keystone: $2,975,170 (+3.1 percent)

• Breckenridge: $4,935,125 (+4.4 percent)

• Arapahoe Basin: $457,765 (-9.4 percent)

• Copper Mountain: $1,372,246 (+4.8 percent)

• Aspen Mountain: $105,917 (+7.5 percent)

• Aspen Highlands: $441,049 (+11 percent)

• Snowmass: $1,624,731 (+0.6 percent)

• Buttermilk: $267,380 (+1.4 percent)

• Sunlight Mountain: $20,626 (+4.6 percent)

Total paid: $20,182,237 (+1.2 percent)

Source: U.S. Forest Service

The 11 ski areas that use public lands in the White River National Forest paid a record $20.18 million in fees last fiscal year, but none of the funds helped create trails, patrol the backcountry or improve campgrounds.

The revenue was returned to the U.S. Treasury.

The White River National Forest, which attracts more visitors than many national parks, raises more in revenue than it costs the government in expenses. The irony is the sprawling, 2.3-million acre national forest — which surrounds Vail and the Eagle River Valley — has a shrinking budget to tackle its core missions, even as it’s collecting a record amount from the ski areas.

The U.S. Forest Service has been forced to use more of its funds to fight catastrophic fires in recent years. That has affected the money the agency has available for many other duties.

“We’re hurting everywhere. More and more is going to fire,” White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said.

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The White River’s budget for 2018 is probably going to be flat. The forest receives about $16 million from funds appropriated by Congress, and it will be allowed to keep roughly $2 million in fees collected from visitors to the Maroon Bells, as well as outfitter fees. Unlike other fees collected on the forest, the ski-area payments have always gone back to Washington.

Tight Funds

The White River’s annual budget has plummeted from $30.39 million in 2009 to around $18 million in recent years, yet the number of visitors has continued to climb.

Forest Service officials anticipate spending two-thirds of the agency’s budget on firefighting by 2025. That will leave an increasingly smaller portion of funds for the rest of the agency’s responsibilities.

That creates a budget foundation that Fitzwilliams has previously labeled “unsustainable.”

The prospects for retaining ski-area fees appear dim. There has been occasional noise in Congress about passing legislation to allow national forests to retain at least a portion of ski area fees. The Recreation Not Red Tape Act, which addresses broader funding issues, was introduced in 2016. It went through a hearing in the U.S. House last fall but hasn’t been heard by the Senate.

Rep. Scott Tipton, the Republican representing the 3rd Congressional District, which includes part of Eagle County, supports the act.

Colorado Ski Country USA worked with legislators on the fee retention portion of the bill and supports it.

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, has not taken a position on that act.

“Michael supports locally retaining a portion of the fees that ski areas pay to the U.S. Forest Service,” said Laurie Cipriano, Bennet’s press secretary. “He believes the funds should be used at the national forest where they were generated to help address backlogs and improve recreation.”

Fees Continue to Increase

Meanwhile, the fees paid by ski areas continue to grow. The cumulative amount paid by the 11 ski areas increased 11 percent in 2016, reflecting strong growth from the season before.

For fiscal 2017, the fee revenue grew only 1.2 percent.

“It’s good to see these revenues coming in because that means they’re doing well,” Fitzwilliams said of the ski areas.

The fees are determined by a complex formula that takes into account how much public land is used for the ski operations and how much revenue is derived from use of those lands. Skier visits and related business, such as ski school lessons, figures into the formula.

Vail Resorts paid $15.9 million in fees for its four ski areas — Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone. That was cumulatively $160,163, or 1 percent, more than in 2016.

The fee for Vail Mountain alone was more than what Aspen Skiing Co. paid for all four of its ski areas. Vail’s fee was $6.39 million.

Aspen Skiing Co. paid $2.44 million last fiscal year, an increase of 2.75 percent above 2016. Skico paid the highest amount ($1.62 million) for Snowmass and the lowest amount ($105,917) for Aspen Mountain. Much of Aspen Mountain’s ski operation is on private rather than public land.

Sunlight Mountain Resort outside of Glenwood Springs paid the smallest fee of the White River ski areas. Its payment was $20,626, an increase of 4.6 percent.

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