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Skiing all the way to Washington

Lauren Glendenning

Other than the occasional scoffing between skiers and snowboarders, political matters are typically left at the bottom of the hill.

However, ski industry lobbyists on a different hill are left to sort out the legislative kinks that could affect millions of people each year. These lobbyists might not be the top dogs on Capitol Hill ” the ski industry is tiny compared to major players like the oil, steel and automobile industries ” but they do represent an important niche for those of us who love to frolic in the snow.

So what are ski industry lobbyists concerned about these days? Recurring issues like federal land and the environment are always prevalent, but topics come up from time to time that surprise even the lobbyists themselves.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, ski industry lobbyists have become interested in regulations regarding the use of explosives and who handles them. It’s not as obvious an issue for the industry as, say, global warming, but it’s an issue that affects ski terrain and skier safety. Explosives are used to stabilize the snow in many ski areas, preventing deadly slides that kill several out-of-bounds skiers each year.

“We have a very unique use of explosives ” ski areas use them for avalanche control work,” says Geraldine Link, a federal lobbyist for the National Ski Areas Association, a trade organization for ski resorts. “We need to be able to get out there and control (avalanches) quickly.”

Since Sept. 11, the executive branch has tightened up regulations on who can buy and use explosives, Link says. A byproduct of the crackdown has been that non-U.S. citizens aren’t able to get clearance to handle explosives. It’s a problem for the ski industry since it relies heavily on foreign workers, many of whom are responsible for avalanche control at ski resorts.

The way explosives are stored has also come under scrutiny, so the issue has become a huge one for the industry, Link says.

“It’s our job to make sure we’re not bogged down by unnecessary regulation,” she says.

Explosives aren’t the only things the ski industry worries about in relation to foreign workers. Seasonal-worker visas, or H-2B visas, have become a hot topic for legislative branch lobbying. Congress’s failure to pass the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act caused the 2005 version of the law to expire. The result: the number of H-2B visas available “was virtually cut in half,” Link says.

The cap for 2008 is a total of 66,000 workers nationally, 33,000 for each the summer and winter seasons. Ski industry lobbyists rallied together with lobbyists from other industries ” such as landscaping, crabbing, hospitality and tourism ” and basically bombarded Congress together to stress the importance of passing the legislation, Link says.

“We felt we weren’t getting a response,” she says.

Congress still hasn’t acted, so lobbyists are pushing for changes in time for the next ski season.

In the meantime, Link says ski resorts shifted gears by switching to J-1 visas, a non-immigrant visa program in which sponsors have to be accredited through the state department’s “exchange visitor” program.

“We managed to seek alternative sources of employees,” Link says.

Kelly Ladyga, a spokeswoman for Vail Resorts, says the company did have to increase the number of J-1 employees. As a result of the visa regulations, though, Ladyga says Vail Resorts has been “far more aggressive in trying to recruit domestically.”

She says the company has doubled the number of job fairs it holds in the United States. Vail Resorts also sends recruiters to other seasonal resorts around the country, usually in the summertime, to try to get those employees to come to Vail for the winters. Vail Resorts also gives money to employees who refer their friends.

Congress has on a lot on its plate. Members’ resources, such as time and expertise, are relatively limited, says Scott Adler, a political science professor at the University of Colorado who has authored numerous research papers, articles and books about Congress.

The 535 members of Congress each have their own staff. Each committee in Congress also has a staff, and there are other legislative resources and institutions that provide information to lawmakers, but it isn’t always enough, Adler says.

“Legislation can be quite detailed, and there’s not always a tremendous amount of expertise,” he says.

That’s where lobbyists come in. Lobbyists, because they typically represent a very specific cause or issue, can provide a wealth of knowledge to legislators to help them make informed decisions. Each industry has its own interest or agenda, and it’s the lobbyist’s job to press that industry’s case, Adler says.

“That’s what lobbying is about,” Adler says. “You make sure that the relevant actors on the Hill hear your case, and make them understand why it’s important they give you what you’re asking for.”

The same goes for state-level lobbyists and legislators. For State Sen. Dan Gibbs, ski industry lobbyists have helped him stress the importance of certain bills to other legislators. Gibbs, whose former state house district includes several ski resorts, as does his current senate district, wanted to increase penalties last year for truckers who don’t use chains on Interstate 70 during snowstorms.

Because of the ski industry’s interest in smooth traffic flow along I-70 ” it’s essentially the only way to access most of Colorado’s ski resorts from the Front Range ” lobbyists spoke to other elected officials about the bill. They also urged other business communities along the corridor to voice support for the bill to legislators.

“The ski industry was very helpful to me on that,” Gibbs says.

Transportation is always a big concern for the ski industry, says Melanie Mills, a state lobbyist for Colorado Ski Country USA, a nonprofit trade association representing 26 Colorado ski resorts, via e-mail. It’s Mills’ job to make sure state legislators know how transportation-related legislation will affect the ski industry ” an economic giant for the state.

“I-70 is a really hard issue that we’ve been working on for a very long time. Federal issues seem to take longer to resolve than most state issues,” Mills says, referring to the weekend traffic jams caused by drivers going to and from ski resorts.

Sometimes lobbyists have the power to convince lawmakers to take something up that they weren’t otherwise going to, but Adler says lobbyists might not hold as much power at the federal level as people may think. His sense is that Congress’s agenda is predetermined by a lot of things that have nothing to do with lobbyists.

When things happen, like a bridge collapsing in Minnesota or planes crashing into the World Trade Center, “there are all kinds of things that are put onto the agenda,” he says.

“After you take all that into account, there’s not a whole lot of other room left over for regulating ski lifts,” Adler says.

But, lobbyists can introduce issues that might regulate ski lifts as part of other issues that are on Congress’s agenda. One example is the ski industry’s retail side, which is currently lobbying for amendments to a tariff act on imports.

Shaun Corette, a Washington lobbyist for Snowsports Industries America, a trade organization, says the industry is trying to get duties reduced or eliminated on a variety of ski clothes, “primarily because there is no manufacturer (of such clothes) in the U.S.”

It’s a bill that doesn’t address the ski industry specifically, but lobbyists are now reminding Congress of the indirect impacts the bill would bring to the industry.

One topic that the ski industry will always face is federal lands. Link says 134 ski resorts in the country operate on U.S. Forest Service lands. Congress conducts periodic reviews of the land-use fees that ski resorts pay to the federal government, to make sure the feds are delivering fair market value, Link says.

Ski resorts’ use of public lands is often a controversial topic, says Scott McInnis, a Denver attorney and former Congressman for the state who has worked closely with the ski industry. The ski industry says it’s a great way to provide recreation without disturbing nature too much, while opponents argue that the forests should go untouched.

“You always have radical environmental organizations trying to restrict the permits, stop the expansion of ski areas,” McInnis says. “If you combined all of the ski areas (in the country), they wouldn’t be but a pin in a haystack of all the public lands.”

And while some ski-related bills such as those dealing with public lands create a stir, some go unopposed, McInnis says.

When one bill proposing to increase the frequency and the scrutiny of ski lift inspections came about, it was a piece of cake, he says. Nobody argued that ski lift inspections should be lax, especially after a gondola crash in the 1970s that killed four people at Vail Mountain. The legislation passed with almost no debate, he says.

However, another bill proposing to eliminate ski resorts’ liability for accidents caused by skier negligence, not the ski resorts’ negligence, was very controversial, primarily because of the organization of personal injury attorneys. The attorneys, who McInnis says have a very powerful lobbying arm, didn’t want to lose the chance to sue ski resorts when reckless skiers crashed into others. The ski industry was terrified that such lawsuits could ruin its economic stability, McInnis says.

“We had a rash of lawsuits. At the time, (lift) tickets were about $18, and it added $1.50 to every ticket just for litigation,” McInnis remembers. “We felt it was going to break the industry. I carried the bill, which says ski areas would be liable for what the ski area did wrong, not for what a reckless skier does to another skier.”

Ski resorts are businesses, Gibbs says, so their interests ” such as health care, immigration and workers’ compensation ” typically align with those of most businesses.

In an effort to give the ski industry a voice in Washington, Rep. Mark Udall, Eagle County’s congressman, created the Ski and Snowboard Caucus in 2003. The caucus includes about 25 members from states that have ski resorts. The caucus does not have formal meetings, says Heather Fox, a spokeswoman for Udall, but members do a yearly briefing on the state of the industry. The briefings usually consist of issues related to revenue, labor and the environment, she says.

“Members of Congress are very good to us,” Link says. “We receive a lot of help from delegations in ski states. Just our visibility as an industry goes a long way in Washington.”

Lauren Glendenning can be reached for comment at 970.748.2983 or Lglendenning@vailtrail.com.


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