Ski resorts feel winds of change
Changes in the works for U.S. ski resorts?Sub: Forest Service, industry discuss relationship at national conferenceBy Bob BerwynU.S. Forest Service officials say the administrative framework for managing ski resort use on public lands is being evaluated at the highest levels, a process that could lead to changes for skiers and snowboarders at their favorite hill in coming seasons.The ever-changing nature of the relationship between the ski industry and the federal agency was the subject of a dialogue during last month’s annual meeting of the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group that represents most major resorts, along with related ski industry businesses like lift manufacturers."The biggest question is how to craft a positive experience for guests," says Dave Holland, the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C.-based director of recreation, heritage and wilderness resources.As the agency’s top gun on ski industry issues, Holland says, "There are a number of challenges with the ski industry. Things are different than they were 10 to 15 years ago, and we are trying to figure out where we want to be in 10 to 15 years. Our partnership with the ski industry gives the public a chance to have some great experiences on public land."Discussions at the recent NSAA summit meeting covered a wide variety of topics, including a recent Inspector General’s audit that covered national security topics like the storage of avalanche explosives at resorts. Holland says the agency is finalizing a report on those issues.More likely to affect the ski experience were discussions on topics like Copper Mountain’s Beeline Advantage pass program, a premium price ticket that enables preferred access for skiers staying at resort-owned lodging properties. Copper set up the program two seasons ago, "in violation of the terms and conditions of their special use permit," according to a Forest Service report. Under the program, holders of the Beeline ticket were able to use separate lift lines to access certain lifts.Such programs could pop up all over the country if the Forest Service sticks with its current position, influenced by the pro-business, anti-regulation climate of the current administration."I feel that approach is OK," says Holland. "The Forest Service shouldn’t be involved. It should be market-driven."Under another controversial program launched as a test at Aspen last year, the agency’s national headquarters approved the so-called "lap-map," or Maplink program, giving the go-ahead for the ski areas to affix trail maps and associated advertising messages to chairlift safety bars. Ripple Media, the Aspen-based company that proposed the program sells the advertising space and shares the proceeds with the resort.Forest- and district-level officials questioned the program, saying it violated a long-standing ban on outdoor advertising on public lands, but Holland says that, since the ads are only visible to people riding on the chairs, he doesn’t consider it to be outdoor advertising."It gives us the opportunity to get some real positive public lands messages out there," Holland says, indicating that the advertising could be couched as sponsorship of such messages.The difference between advertising and sponsorship messages may be subtle, but it’s also a huge financial issue, according to some sources. In the case of straightforward advertising messages, the Forest Service would need to figure out a way to collect fees. That’s not the case with sponsorship messages.Holland says the agency has not yet made a final decision as to whether it will approve such programs, pending a meeting among top officials from Washington, along with forest supervisors and ski area experts at the regional and district levels. There’s also a question of whether there will be any public participation in this process.That could depend at least in part on exactly what the proposed changes are, says Ed Ryberg, winter sports administrator for the USFS Rocky Mountain region. According to Ryberg, certain actions trigger a public process if they cross a certain impact threshold, but it’s not clear if these changes reach that level.When notified of the impending changes, representatives of large national ski clubs and ski councils (including National Ski Council Federation, representing tens of thousands of skiers) said they were unaware of the issues, and had not been notified by the Forest Service.More locally, groups like the Colorado Mountain Club and Colorado Wild are watching these issues out of the corner of their eye, but are generally more concerned with tracking the environmental impacts of agency and industry actions on public lands. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the skiing and snowboarding public will have any say at all.Although the path seems to be set, Holland acknowledges that the Forest Service faces a delicate balancing act."How do we balance our mandate for ecological stewardship with the demand for recreation? What kind of business practices do we need, considering it’s not (the agency’s) main function to drive revenues for the resorts?" he says. "It’s not an easy road."According to Holland, the Forest Service is also revisiting the fee structure for ski areas the way the agency calculates its share of ski area revenues, money that flows to the federal treasury.The agency was criticized by Congress for implementing a fee structure that was perceived by some as a give-away. Holland says that issue presents another difficult challenge, considering that Congress came up with the new fee structure in the first place, then turned around and questioned it after receiving a report from the General Accounting Office.
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