Gardner, Bennet, Tipton propose legislation that would allow local national forests to retain ski area rent payments
For the last four years, Colorado’s ski areas operating on public land have sent record revenue-based rent checks back to Washington as Forest Service administrators struggle under wildfire-ravaged budgets to shepherd resort plans for upgrades and four-season amenities.
That could change with new legislation proposed Tuesday by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers including Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton and Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, who joined Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden in proposing that at least half of ski area permit fees remain in the national forest where the resorts operate.
The Ski Area Fee Retention Act would allow national forests — including Colorado’s White River National Forest, which sent more than $20 million to the U.S. Treasury last year — to keep at least 50 percent of ski area rent payments.
The White River National Forest is home to the country’s busiest ski destinations with 11 resorts, including Vail, Breckenridge and Aspen Snowmass, but has seen its annual budget dwindle to around $17 million from more than $30 million a decade ago. In that time, visitation to the White River’s ski areas, peaks and wilderness areas has climbed close to 13 million. And resorts like Vail, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge and Snowmass have spent years awaiting agency approval for new summer amenities designed to foster year-round economies in their home towns.
“The Forest Service is an important partner for Colorado’s communities and outdoor recreation industry,” Bennet, a Democrat, said in a statement announcing the legislation. “Retaining some of the ski area fees in our national forests will help strengthen that partnership and provide new opportunities for growth in our mountain communities.”
The ski resort industry has been lobbying for ski area fee retention for years. Wyden, a Democrat, has included fee retention in the Recreation Not Red Tape legislation he has proposed for the last two years. This time, the industry pushed to have fee retention in its own bill, which was introduced Tuesday in the Senate and in the House by Tipton, a Republican, and New Hampshire Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, a Democrat.
“With broad bipartisan support, we view this as no-brainer. This is something the ski areas need and the Forest Service needs too,” said Geraldine Link, policy director at the National Ski Areas Association. “Ultimately resort guests benefit from ski fee retention. It will help move the process along when a ski area wants to upgrade its lifts or add snowmaking or invest in a mountain bike park.”
Ski areas on public land send the U.S. Treasury about $37 million a year, about $25 million of that coming from Colorado. The bill would allow local forests to keep as much as $24 million a year. The money would only be used to administer ski area permits, review ski area proposals for improvements, enhance visitor services and support the Forest Service’s Avalanche Information and Education Program.
Forests that collect more than $15 million annually would keep 50 percent of the fees collected while the many more forests with less than $15 million in ski area fees would retain 65 percent. Forests could also transfer portions of retained fee revenue to other forests.
“It’s important that our skiing communities don’t just send money to Washington and not fully benefit from the government fees they are charged,” Gardner, a Republican, said in a statement. “My bipartisan legislation with Sen. Bennet will make it easier for our skiing communities to make the capital improvements they need to grow and thrive.”
The Forest Service has seen its budget scorched by wildfire in recent years. Last year the agency directed 56 percent of its overall budget to fighting fires. That percentage is expected to reach 67 percent by 2021. That has hindered the Forest Service’s ability to process ski area requests for improvements, which have grown as resorts develop summertime amenities like ziplines, alpine coasters and bike trails. (Resorts pay the Forest Service to review those projects.)
Vail Resorts sends the Forest Service the largest rent payment of any U.S. resort operators, with its 2016 check for Colorado’s Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Beaver Creek totaling $9.3 million. The company on Tuesday hailed the Ski Area Fee Retention Act.
“We support keeping the fees that are generated on the land close to the land to benefit both the environment and the local communities where we operate our resort,” Vail Resorts spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga said. “It’s a truly sustainable approach.”