Too close for comfort?
An already close-knit relationship grew even cozier last week, as the U.S. Forest Service and National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) updated and bolstered a long-standing Memorandum of Understanding that emphasizes collaboration, environmental education and the importance of public-private partnerships in providing developed recreational facilities.Top agency and industry officials say the agreement highlights areas of mutual interest, showing, for example, that the two entities "share a mutual commitment to environmental stewardship."But some watchdog groups questioned the deal, worrying that the emphasis on developed recreation could come at the expense of sound ecosystem management. The agreement could also be used as a tool to exert political leverage, potentially giving the industry more muscle as it wrestles for approval of ski area expansions, according to Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an internal watchdog group.That could have implications for Summit County, where the recently revised White River National Forest plan allocated big chunks of the forest for lift-served skiing. Resorts like Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain may soon try to shoehorn terrain expansions close to environmentally sensitive areas or into terrain favored by non-motorized users, and Stahl says the agreement could be used to help push for quick approval.Regional Forest Service winter sports program administrator Ed Ryberg dismisses those concerns. He says the agreement focuses on improving cooperation in areas of mutual interest without affecting the agency’s ability to carry out its regulatory responsibility under other existing policies and federal environmental laws.For example, Ryberg says the deal enables the agency to get more involved in the Sustainable Slopes effort, a two-year-old ski industry environmental campaign. Ryberg, who signed the agreement as the agency’s national winter sports partnership coordinator, says the memorandum also serves as a guideline for Forest Service officials across the country, outlining a level of cooperation and consistency at the national level.But Stahl says some language in the revised agreement could be construed as giving developed recreation priority status when it comes to forest plan revisions and project level plans."This is an important change. It could be interpreted to put developed recreation in a superior position over other resources and uses," Stahl stated in an e-mail interview this week. "No other use of national forests has such a privileged position in Forest Service policy – an explicit commitment to emphasize its value in the Forest Service’s key planning documents."The Forest Service has entered into similar agreements with other organizations, including mountain bike and motorized groups. But Stahl says such agreements subvert the fundamental purpose of the Forest Service when it comes to permittees of all types namely to regulate permittee behavior on public lands to protect the public interest."These types of MOUs have as their primary, unstated, purpose the shackling of overzealous local Forest Service regulators," Stahl says."When the local Forest Service employee says, ‘find an alternative site for that new ski run that doesn’t carve a clear-cut through the old-growth,’ the ski area can complain to higher-ups that the employee is not being sufficiently ‘cooperative,’ as required by the MOU. The message is not lost on the field folks that you cooperate, or else," he explainsOn the other hand, ski industry leaders have often claimed that former Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck tilted the agency away from its traditional multiple-use mandate and began favoring preservation over recreation and other human uses. The new agreement marks a step toward recognizing the value and health benefits of downhill skiing, according to industry officials.Many conservation advocates have long feared that ties between the Forest Service and ski industry are too close. Some warn that the level of cooperation outlined in the new agreement is all the more worrisome at a time when the ski industry on the national level is dominated by a handful of large corporations whose main business is real estate development.They warn that the interests of the skiing public and the wider public aren’t necessarily synonymous with those of the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group that advocates for its member resorts.Colorado Wild’s ski industry analyst, Jeff Berman, has previously said that, if the Forest is truly interested in making decisions that serve the public interest, it should consider trying to establish a partnership with skiers and snowboarders, rather than the resort industry.Berman says the new agreement smacks of favoritism that could give the industry an edge when it comes to resolving disputes over environmental impacts. "We’re all going to be sitting down at a meeting to try and resolve the appeals on the White River National Forest. This creates a conflicting dynamic for the Forest Service," Berman says. "I think it means that, when the ski industry files an appeal, the Forest Service will support them."With all the discussion over the Forest Service’s regulatory role, it’s easy to forget that the agency played a key role in the development of the ski industry. Enthusiastic snow rangers surveyed the country’s mountainous regions for likely ski area locations, and promoted the sport they loved, aiming to make it widely available to the American public. In some cases, the agency was actively involved in developing ski mountains, partnering with the Civilian Conservation Corps to cut trails and put up lifts.