Proposed legislation could ease budget crunch in Aspen-area forest
The Aspen Times
Legislation recently introduced in Congress may pave the way for the cash-strapped White River National Forest to retain some of the funds that Aspen Skiing Co. and other ski resort operators pay to use public lands.
The Recreation Not Red-Tape Act introduced by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, both Democrats from Oregon, takes a broad look at expanding outdoor recreation use of public lands. It would force federal agencies to place a priority on recreation and it proposes ways to maintain public lands.
The maintenance proposals could have a direct effect on the Aspen area and the rest of Colorado’s mountain resorts. Wyden’s proposal would allow a national forest to retain up to 80 percent of the ski area permit fees collected at that forest. The bill spells out a laundry list of how the revenues could be used — with all of them tied to enhancing winter and summer recreation opportunities and aiding administration of recreation special use permits.
Specific uses ranged from “improving and increasing ski area recreational opportunities” to beefing up avalanche education, and to maintaining trails to offering enhanced interpretative displays.
The retention rate could be reduced to 45 percent if the revenues collected “exceed the reasonable needs” of the forest, according to the bill.
The language says the funding kept under the proposal would supplement rather than supplant other federal funding.
High use, falling funds
The U.S. Forest Service hasn’t taken a formal position yet on the proposed legislation. However, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said in previous interviews that the shift of funds to national firefighting efforts has significantly decreased the forest service’s budget for other duties. The White River National Forest has the highest rate of recreation visits in the country, yet its budget for basic functions such as trail maintenance and backcountry patrols has been whittled down.
Another impact, Fitzwilliams recently said, is it takes longer to process proposals by ski areas, such as summer recreation expansion plans at Vail, Breckenridge and Snowmass.
The White River National Forest collected $15,753,961 in fiscal 2014 from the 11 ski areas on the forest that use public lands, including all four owned by Aspen Skiing Co. That was a record collection amount. The complex payment formula is based on more than acreages of public lands used by ski areas. It is influenced by factors such as skier visits and other on-mountain revenues.
Ski fees go to U.S. Treasury
The revenues from the ski area permit fees are currently returned to the U.S. Treasury.
“Senator Wyden’s Recreation Not Red-Tape Act treats ski area permit fees like other recreation fees for the first time, making sure the money that ski areas pay goes back into enhancing ski areas, instead of to the Treasury,” said the senator’s press secretary, Sam Offerdahl.
Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association for the Colorado ski industry, supports the part of the legislation that affects use of ski area fees.
“Colorado Ski Country worked with Sen. Wyden’s office on the fee retention component of the bill and we support that,” Colorado Ski Country spokeswoman Jennifer Rudolph wrote in an email. “There are other things in the bill that are not our issues, so we have no position on those.”
A press release issued by Wyden’s office last month said more than 50 outdoor industry groups support the proposed legislation, including National Ski Areas Association, a national trade industry group. NSAA officials couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
The Recreation Not Red-Tape Act shares many of the same goals that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced in a call for sweeping policy changes Tuesday. Jewell said the U.S. must take additional steps to conserve public lands, waters and wildlife. It must also do more to reach out to a more diverse cross-section of Americans and get them interested in public lands, she said.
The U.S. Department of the Interior also announced it will work with the U.S. Department of Commerce to produce a national report detailing the economic benefits of our country’s outdoor economy. Wyden and U.S. Sen. Amy Kloubuchar (D-MN) called for such a study last year.