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Pushing the boundaries

Bob Berwyn

The ski industry is taking advantage of a pro-business, anti-regulatory climate in Washington, D.C. by asking the U.S. Forest Service to consider establishing new categorical exclusions for certain on-mountain activities. Additionally, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) and some select resorts will have a seat at the table when the federal Council on Environmental Quality meets to discuss reforms to the way the National Environmental Policy Act is administered.In effect, said some environmental watchdogs, the ski industry is trying to rewrite the rules under which its activities on public lands are governed. And that doesn’t sit well with some activists, who charge that private interests have already achieved an unprecedented level of influence in the public domain.Projects approved under categorical exclusions are generally subjected to a much lower level of environmental review. Recently, the Forest Service has adopted similar measures to speed up so-called forest health and fuel reduction projects.In the larger picture, top agency leaders have sought to cut down on red tape in all areas, claiming that an excessive administrative burden diverts resources away from on-the-ground work.&quotThis is a time of opportunity,&quot said Geraldine Link, policy director for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), writing in the most recent issue of the trade association’s bi-monthly publication. &quotNSAA is doing everything it can to level the playing field for the 134 resorts operating on public lands.&quotAccording to Link’s article in the NSAA Journal, the Clinton years were marked by a &quotbarrage of unfavorable policy making,&quot from a roadless policy that would have &quotseverely curtailed&quot resort expansion to a lynx conservation strategy &quotthat failed to take into account the operational realities of ski resorts.&quotNow, Forest Service policy has shifted to more highly value the role of developed recreation, according to Link. &quotToday, recreation is no longer a dirty word or spelled with a &quotw&quot (wreckreation) within the agency or administration,&quot she wrote.But according to Ed Ryberg, one of the agency’s top winter sports specialists based at the regional office in Lakewood, Link may be overstating some of her points.&quotYou have to take into account who it’s written for,&quot Ryberg said, explaining that both the roadless rule and the lynx conservation strategy had built-in allowances to make sure ski areas needs were considered. According to Ryberg, the on-again, off-again roadless rule, for example, expressly permitted ski area activities in roadless areas, although it would require that the roadless characteristics of the areas be maintained.&quotThey (NSAA) gave us a laundry list of things they’d like us to address,&quot said Ken Karkula, national winter sports program manager for the Forest Service. According to Karkula, the process is in a very early stage and the agency has not formally responded to the request.&quotWe’ve got a lot of things on our plate,&quot Karkula said.Should the agency act, it would like be in the form of some sort of proposed rule change that would be published in the federal register and subject to public comment.The activities the categorical exclusions would cover could include things like lift replacements following the same alignment, additional snowmaking on trails that already are treated with man-made snow and use of existing service roads and trails for new uses like mountain biking, Ryberg said. He characterized them as routine activities that would not have any significant new impacts on the ground.Enabling ski areas to implement certain activities without extensive environmental analysis could certainly save time and money, but some conservation advocates who track the Forest Service and the ski industry closely said the requested exclusions could limit public review and comment.Much could depend on the scope of the proposed exclusions, said Colorado Wild’s Rocky Smith.&quotIf it’s only a half-mile of road to be used as a mountain bike trail, it might only be a minimal impact, but if it’s five or six miles, it could be a different story,&quot Smith said.In the article penned for the NSAA magazine, Link also touted other ski industry gains, including a delay in any adjustment of the fees resorts pay to the government for the use of public lands. Some critical media reports during recent years suggested the government is not getting a fair cut of industry earnings.A Forest Service report on the subject was released last year, but did not offer any solid conclusions.&quotIt raised some questions, but there was nothing definitive,&quot Ryberg said, acknowledging that questions linger both within the agency and outside as to whether the government is getting fair market value for use of the lands where resorts are permitted to operate.The issue resurfaces periodically. The fee structure was last adjusted in 1996, when 88 percent of the resorts operating on Forest Service land saw their fees reduced. At the time, the perception was that the move helped many of the smaller ski areas, while some of the larger resorts ended up paying more.The Forest Service is obligated to look at the fee structure every five years and report back to Congress, Ryberg said, explaining that, during the next review, the agency plans to use an appraisal-based system to try and measure fair market value. Much of the problem stems from the lack of tools to get an accurate measure fair market value, he explained.


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