Michael Bennet rewrite helped the SHRED Act evolve from its right-wing origins | VailDaily.com

Michael Bennet rewrite helped the SHRED Act evolve from its right-wing origins

Bill started with Cory Gardner and the ski industry, now seeks to include nonprofits and local governments among its beneficiaries

VAIL — A bill from former Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner and the ski industry to create faster turnaround on Forest Service reviews of resort projects was recently expanded to benefit local governments and nonprofits and rebranded as the SHRED Act.

Gardner, a Republican from Yuma, was defeated in his bid for reelection in 2020 and departed the U.S. Senate in January. At the time, he was working on legislation known as the Ski Area Fee Retention Act, which sought to bring fees paid by ski area operators back to the Forest Service offices where they operate.

Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado supported Gardner’s legislation in its early stages, but Bennet had also heard concerns from outdoor recreation user groups and local governments regarding the potential outcomes of the legislation, and who would benefit. Bennet’s staff said he heard concerns that ski resorts weren’t the only ones paying fees to the national forest, and other national forest needs existed outside of the permit areas of the ski industry.

Gardner drafted the first two iterations of the legislation, which sought to bring a portion of the fees that ski areas pay into the U.S. Treasury back to the Forest Service areas from which they came to support activities in the forest. In Gardner’s bill, those activities were focused on supporting ski areas.

After Gardner left the Senate, however, Bennet picked up the bill and began to make some tweaks. In an email to the Vail Daily this week, he described the changes.

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“Our bill now sets aside funding for local recreation management — not just to support ski area permitting and programs, but also to manage special user permits, serve visitors, improve trailheads, and maintain facilities,” Bennet wrote. “This important change means that we’re actually investing in mountain communities near ski areas in Colorado and across the West, who’ve seen an increase in visitation and demand for outdoor recreation.”

Michael Bennet in the White River National Forest in February of 2020.
John LaConte/jlaconte@vaildaily.com

John Plack, a spokesperson for Vail Resorts, said the company supports Bennet’s new version of the bill, known as the Ski Hill Resources for Economic Development or SHRED Act.

“The resources retained under the proposal would support (the Forest Service’s) work with ski areas to administer permits and review proposals for on-mountain improvements that enhance guest experience,” John Plack told the Vail Daily in an email. “Importantly, it would support the maintenance of our local recreation infrastructure on Forest Service lands.”

Started in 2016

Plack said Vail Resorts began engaging on the concepts incorporated in the SHRED Act in 2016.

2016 marked a summer of celebration for the company, as Vail Mountain had finally unveiled its new Epic Discovery summer attractions after five-plus years of trying to see it completed.

The Epic Discovery theme park — a rollercoaster and series of seven ziplines located atop the Eagle Bahn Gondola — required an act of Congress to get finished, as ski areas which operate on national forest lands weren’t approved to construct summer attractions on those lands prior to the 2011 passage of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act.

Cory Gardner visited Vail in 2016 to celebrate the completion of Epic Discovery, riding the new Forest Flyer coaster and talking with the various shareholders involved, which included the National Forest and the Nature Conservancy.

Gardner said he was proud to co-sponsor the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, which allowed for the construction of Epic Discovery park. His co-sponsor in the House was Rep. Scott Tipton, a five-term incumbent in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District who lost to Lauren Boebert in last June’s Republican primary before Boebert went on to defeat Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush in November.

And next in his sights, Gardner said, he wanted to work on efforts to bring back more revenue to the White River National Forest.

At the time, Gardner believed he could retain more local revenue by presenting the right data, and was pitching the idea of an annual study to present to Congress regarding the outdoor recreation industry’s economic impact to localized areas like the White River National Forest.

“If we had this study, then we’re going to be able to say ‘Hey look, if we were able to have more revenue turned back to the White River National Forest, so that they could better manage their land, we’d be able to have more economic impact,” Gardner said while visiting Vail Mountain in 2016.

Later, though, an opportunity was presented through legislation called the Recreation not Red Tape Act, from Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Rep. Blake Moore of Utah. The Recreation Not Red Tape Act had included a provision to send more ski area fees back to the national forest areas within which they operate, and Gardner removed the ski area fee provision from the Recreation Not Red Tape Act and created the Ski Area Fee Retention Act as a standalone bill in 2019.

But it didn’t have broad support. Rep. Joe Neguse, who represents areas surrounding Vail, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge and Keystone in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, was not yet behind the legislation, nor was the Northwest Council of Governments and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns.

Bennet’s rewrite

After two iterations under Sen. Gardner, Sen. Bennet took the pen and rewrote parts of the bill, opening up the uses of the retained funds to benefit a broader swath of recreation services in zones outside of the ski area special permit areas.

“Thanks to this change, we were able to secure the support of key leaders in Congress — from Rep. Neguse, Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee’s National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Subcommittee to Sen. Barrasso, Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources,” Bennet told the Vail Daily.

Sen. Michael Bennet, right, gathers with White River National Forest users for a photograph at Camp Hale in Eagle County in February of 2020.
John LaConte/jlaconte@vaildaily.com

Bennet was able to garner the support of the Northwest Council of Governments and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, and retain the support of the ski industry throughout the process. Plack from Vail Resorts said the company was grateful to Bennet for his leadership on the issue.

“Outdoor recreation and ski areas are the backbone of our mountain communities and economies, and it’s great to see such broad support for this bill,” Plack said.

Under the bill, the U.S. Treasury would establish an account known as the Ski Area Fee Retention Account, where national forest areas which collect more than $15 million per year will receive “an amount equal to 60 percent of the rental charges collected at the covered unit in the fiscal year,” according to the language in the bill.

That money could then be used by ski resorts for things which help operations, including “ski area special use permit and program administration in the covered unit, the processing of proposals for ski area improvement projects; staffing and contracting for that processing and related services in the covered unit or in the applicable region; staff training for processing of ski area applications and administering ski area permits in the covered unit or the region in which the covered unit is located; interpretation activities, visitor information, visitor services, and signage in the covered unit to enhance the ski area visitor experience on national forest system land; and wildfire preparedness, planning, and coordination in and around ski areas in the covered unit or in the applicable region,” according to the bill.

The remaining 40 percent could be used by local governments and nonprofits for “administering non-ski area Forest Service recreation special use permits; avalanche information and education activities carried out by the secretary or nonprofit partners; recreation management, maintenance, and services; and administration of leases,” according to the bill.

The SHRED Act received a National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Subcommittee Hearing on June 8, which went well, said Neguse, a subcommittee chair.

“I am hopeful that we will mark up the bill — go through the amendment process — next month, and then from there get it to the floor shortly thereafter,” Neguse said.

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