SHRED Act would help national forests manage surging recreation desires
Bill introduced by Colorado and Wyoming senators in U.S. Congress would let forests keep percentage of ski fees
Popular destinations such as the White River National Forest would have more funds to better manage the outdoor recreation that threatens to overwhelm them under a bill introduced Tuesday in Congress.
The Ski Hill Resources for Economic Development or SHRED Act would allow national forests to keep a high percentage of the funds collected from private ski areas for use of public lands. The majority of the funds, 75%, would be earmarked to support Forest Service ski area programs and more efficiently process ski industry requests for improvements. The other 25% would go to recreation management efforts, which have received declining dollars even as the number of visitors has soared in recent decades.
The bill was welcomed Tuesday by Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest that extends from Independence Pass to the Flat Tops and from Rifle to Summit County.
“The recreation program has been working on baling wire and duct tape for many years,” Fitzwilliams said. “(The SHRED Act) evens the playing field and is a step in the right direction.”
The U.S. government has established a system where national forests retain revenue from outfitter and guide permits, grazing fees and timber receipts to support those programs. However, the revenue from ski area permit fees goes back to the national treasury. Some national forests, such as the White River, generate tens of millions of dollars annually from the ski area fees, so they are missing out on a revenue source that could be a game-changer.
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The bill has bipartisan sponsorship in both the Senate and House. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, and John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, introduced the act Tuesday. U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Colorado Democrat, was among the bipartisan list of introducers in the House.
“This bill will rightfully keep funds where they are generated and help local communities tackle their own priorities, like making trailhead improvements or increasing staffing,” Bennet said in a prepared statement.
Hearings were scheduled to begin Tuesday before the U.S. Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public lands, which is chaired by Neguse.
“Across our district — in Summit and Eagle counties in particular — outdoor recreation fuels our economy, drives tourism and is ingrained in our communities and our way of life,” Neguse said in a statement. “Investing in our National Forests, restoring our public lands and supporting outdoor guides and retailers is how we ensure our mountain communities thrive and grow.”
If passed, the bill could generate substantial new revenue for the White River National Forest, which has 11 ski areas that pay fees for public lands. Those ski areas include Aspen Skiing Co.’s four ski areas as well as Vail, Beaver Creek and those in Summit County.
Under the SHRED Act, forests that collect more than $15 million annually would retain 60% of the fees collected. Forests that collect less than $15 million annually would be allowed to keep 75% of the revenue.
In 2019, the ski areas in the White River collectively paid $22.56 million in fees. The bill’s formula would allow the White River to retain 60% or $13.54 million.
Of that amount, 75% or $10.16 million would be dedicated to ski industry oversight and winter programs. The other 25% or $3.38 million would go to broad recreation needs. That could include trailhead improvements, facility maintenance and affordable housing.
Fitzwilliams stressed that he is not counting on anything before a bill is passed, but it was easy for him to outline how the White River could put the revenue to work.
There are years when so many capital improvement projects were proposed by the ski industry that his staff could not review them concurrently.
“We couldn’t handle all the projects they had,” he said.
Additional funds would help review ski area proposals more efficiently, without shortchanging the National Environmental Policy Act process or pubic involvement, he said.
The funding could also help the Forest Service engage better with the public through “ski with a ranger” programs, for example, he said. “We have 7 million captive visitors.”
With the 25% of the revenue dedicated to broader recreation, Fitzwilliams envisions the White River establishing a baseline staffing level in the recreation program. That would include wilderness rangers and trail maintenance crews. They could address trail damage and create extra patrols for issues such as illegally placed campsites and improper disposal of human waste — issues that plague pristine destinations in the forest surrounding Aspen.
The White River National Forest receives between 13 million and 15 million visitors per year, including about 7 million skiers and snowboarders.
“We can solve so many problems with boots on the ground,” he said, referring to more rangers in the field.
The SHRED Act is supported by National Ski Areas Association and Colorado Ski Country USA, national and state trade associations. It also was endorsed by the Colorado Association of Ski Towns and Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. Environmental groups haven’t publicly declared positions yet.