Summit County leaders, activists push for ski area fees be used for forest health, not just skiing
Summit Daily News
For years, Colorado ski areas have been heavily pushing the passage of the Ski Area Fee Retention Act in the U.S. Congress, a bill that would allow forest service districts in ski areas to retain 50% of permit and lease fees ski areas pay to use federal land in the forest districts they originate from, money which usually goes directly to the federal treasury.
But local conservation groups and government officials in Summit County have raised concerns about the bill, saying it is far too narrowly tailored to serve ski areas and their quest to rapidly improve their resorts, with no money going to preventing wildfire or protecting forest health in the communities the ski areas do business in.
Ski areas across Colorado pay about $25 million annually in permit and leasing fees to the federal government. The $25 million from Colorado ski areas represent the vast majority of the $37 million annually sent to Washington by ski areas nationwide. Currently, all of that money goes to the feds for forest service projects across the country, not just the forests the money comes from.
Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., introduced the bill in Congress in their respective chambers last year, and reintroduced the bill again this session.
“The Forest Service is a critical partner to Colorado communities and our outdoor recreation industry,” Bennet said in a press release when the bill was reintroduced last month. “By retaining some of the ski area fees for use in our local national forests, we can strengthen the Forest Service’s ability to serve our mountain towns and the businesses that drive our economy.”
“It’s important that our skiing communities don’t just send money to Washington and not fully benefit from fees they generate for the federal government,” Gardner said in the same release. “My bipartisan legislation with Senator Bennet will make it easier for our skiing communities to make the capital improvements they need by keeping the fees they generate.”
The ski resort industry was also effusive about the introduction of the bill, which they heavily lobbied for. In a Denver Post article, a ski industry lobbyist said the retained money would be used primarily for the benefit of ski areas and their guests.
“Ultimately resort guests benefit from ski fee retention,” said Geraldine Link, policy director at the National Ski Areas Association, the main federal lobbyists for ski areas in Washington. “It will help move the process along when a ski area wants to upgrade its lifts or add snowmaking or invest in a mountain bike park.”
Link referred to the fact that the bill — introduced this session as H.R. 2509 in the House and S. 1723 in the Senate — specifically allocates the retained fee money for ski area improvements and expedition of federal approval of capital improvements to ski areas.
The bill specifically prohibits funds from being used for “wildfire suppression” or “biological monitoring” of forest service land.
The specific exclusion of funding for forestry projects outside of ones that benefit ski areas is what drew consternation from Summit County’s Forest Health Task Force, a local forest conservation council.
The task force’s concern is drawn primarily from the massive slash to the budget of the White River National Forest, the most visited national forest in the nation, over the past decade. The funding for the district has been decimated from $270,000 in 2008 to $40,000 in 2018.
The organization sent a letter to both senators on July 5 asking language to be modified to allow using retained funds for wildfire suppression and forest health projects.
“My major issue with this well intended bill is that the the scope of the fund usage by land managers is very limited,” said Tom Koehler, a member of the Forest Health Task Force who contributed to the letter. “It would be great to have more funds to take care of the public land parcel, for wildfire suppression, and preserving the adjacent ecological system.”
The letter follows similar letters sent last year to the senators by regional government organizations, including the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns.
Those organizations include Summit County government and every town government in the county, where residents have paid millions of dollars over the years to do wildfire mitigation work on land owned by the Forest Service to do work they are unable to do because of budget cuts.
“The language in the ski area fee retention bill kind of flies in the face of the real needs and priorities here,” said County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier. “We support the concept of having ski fee retained in our forest district, but we also want the priorities and needs for the money to be determined by forest supervisor or district ranger, not exclusively the ski areas.”
An argument may be made that ski areas are justified in retaining money for their own use, given that they are the ones giving the money to the feds in the first place. But that is not how local conservationists see it.
“While they’re the biggest payers of these fees for using public land, they’re not the only ones,” Koehler said, pointing out that anybody who does business on federal land pays the same kind of fees. “It’s a reasonable mechanism to pay the public for use of public land, which they profit off.”
“Even though they pay the fees, those fees are supported by patrons, users and the community in various ways,” Forest Health Task Force president Howard Hallman said. “Without the community infrastructure and blessing, the ski areas wouldn’t be able to generate the income they generate in the first place.”
There is also concern that if 50% of the retained fees are specifically earmarked for the benefit of ski areas instead of general forest service use, as it works now, that money would be taken out of the pool for wildfire suppression and forest health projects nationwide, compounding the problem of dwindling forest service budgets.
“Were this legislation to go into effect, it would preclude using half the money for wildfire mitigation, and that can actually put us in a worse position when it comes to funds for wildfire suppression,” Stiegelmeier said. “That’s taking away potential funds that could be used for preventing wildfire and building healthier forests.”
Requests for comment from the senators about pushback to the bill were not available as of publication.