WASHINGTON – Congress is stepping into a dispute between environmentalists and the ski industry over whether ski areas should be able to expand their summertime recreation, a move critics say could allow them to build amusement parks.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, introduced a bill Monday that would allow ski areas to offer year-round recreation on land they lease from the U.S. Forest Service. Mountain biking, alpine slides and zip-lines that whiz people above forests and valleys are among the more common summertime activities pursued by ski resorts.
Some 125 ski areas nationwide operate in part on federal land under a 1986 law that expressly permits skiing and ski-related recreation.
Environmentalists complain Udall’s bill could lead ski areas to build water parks and roller coasters, which they say would clash with the typical uses allowed on Forest Service land.
“We would like recreation on national forest lands to be dependent on a natural setting and dependent upon an outdoor recreation experience,” said Ryan Demmy Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild, an environmental group in Durango, Colo. “Urban-type recreation that could be provided in any context is not appropriate on public lands.”
The issue arose last year after environmentalists objected to Vail Resorts’ proposal to build an “alpine coaster” — carts that use gravity to race down a mountain on a track built on scaffolding, similar to a roller coaster — on federal land the ski area leases, Bidwell said.
Environmentalists pointed out that current law only permits skiing and skiing-related recreation.
“By that logic, even snowboarding wouldn’t be allowed,” said Geraldine Link, a spokeswoman for the National Ski Areas Association. “That one challenge really was a wake up call for the Forest Service — that they need to update the act.”
The House and Senate natural resources committees, which have jurisdiction over the bill, are dominated by lawmakers from Western states where the ski industry is important to the local economy, Link said. Ski areas elsewhere, including Vermont and New Hampshire, also lease Forest Service land.
The industry had been waiting for Udall to introduce the bill before seeking support from other lawmakers, Link said.
“As our economy is still struggling, we need to make it clear that these year-round opportunities are welcome and available to help promote jobs, stimulate local economies and provide educational and recreational activities for families,” Udall said in a statement released Monday.
Forest Service Deputy Chief Joel Holtrop, testifying at a House hearing on a similar bill by Udall last year, said he supported permitting year-round recreation as a way to help the ski industry “remain economically viable.”
But he also expressed concern that the bill was so broadly written “it could be read to allow water parks, amusement rides or other urban-based recreation under a ski area permit.”
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