Congressional committee approves bill to return some rental fees to ski areas

Author: Tom Ramstack - July 19, 2018 - Updated: August 7, 2018

ski areasAspen Mountain Silver Queen Gondola in the White River National Forest in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Wolfgang Moroder, via Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON — A congressional bill moved forward Wednesday that would return at least half the rent paid by ski resorts to the national parks where they operate.

Three members of Colorado’s delegation are primary sponsors of the proposed legislation.

In Colorado, the White River National Forest near Aspen would be a big beneficiary of the Ski Area Fee Retention Act. The 11 ski areas that use the 2.3-million acre national forest paid about $20 million in rent to the U.S. Treasury last year.

“The recreation economy is vital to the success of many of Colorado’s communities,” Colorado U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, said in a statement. He co-sponsored the bill in the House.

“Improving the current permitting process and allowing for increased investment in recreation by ski areas will enhance visitor experience, which in turn, will boost tourism and bring more revenue to local economies,” Tipton said.

Both of Colorado’s U.S. senators sponsored the companion bill pending in the Senate. After the markup Wednesday, the bill approved by the House Natural Resources Committee moves to a vote on the House floor.

Ski areas contribute more than $37 million in rental fees to the U.S. Treasury each year. Colorado contributes the most of any state at $25 million a year.

The fees paid to the federal government are not used for any specific purpose. The Ski Area Fee Retention Act would direct part of the rental fees into an account within the U.S. Treasury to be used by the Forest Service.

The money would be spent in the ski areas where it is generated to administer permits, improve visitor services and review infrastructure proposals. It also would help to educate skiers about avalanche risks.

The bill marked up Wednesday is one of several congressional proposals to address a nearly $12 billion maintenance and repair backlog of the National Park Service, which helps to administer the nation’s federal forest land.

In recent years, more than half the budget for forests has been spent on fighting wildfires, taking money away from the Forest Service’s permitting process and other services.

The $2.7 billion National Park Service budget the Trump administration proposed in February would take money from federal energy leases to help pay for repairs and improvements at national parks. Congressional approval still is pending.

The Ski Area Fee Retention Act would return half the money to forests that collect more than $15 million a year in fees. Forests that collect less than $15 million could keep 65 percent. The Forest Service could transfer the money between forests to match their needs.

Witnesses at a recent House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing testified that a funding shortfall at national parks and forests is hurting local communities.

One of the witnesses was Ron Cohen, deputy general counsel for Alterra Mountain Company, a hospitality company headquartered in Denver that operates ski resorts nationwide. They include resorts at Steamboat Springs and Winter Park in Colorado.

In response to a question from Tipton about the economic impact from the Forest Service’s slow process to authorize special use permits for ski area infrastructure, Cohen replied, “For the last twenty years in Mammoth (California), we are the largest employer in the area and we are clearly the economic engine for the county and region. When we are unable to get stuff done, that flows through the community.”

The Ski Area Fee Retention Act drew support from ski resort operators in Colorado and the National Ski Areas Association, in part because of its potential for speeding up special use permitting.

“This will provide for adequate staffing and training for administering ski area permits on a day-to-day basis as well as improved processing of proposals for needed infrastructure at ski areas, including chairlifts, snowmaking and year-round facilities,” said a March 5 letter the National Ski Areas Association wrote to Tipton.

The Sunlight Mountain Resort in Garfield County is a member of the association.

“We support this legislation,” Troy Hawks, Sunlight Mountain Resort’s marketing and sales director, told Colorado Politics.

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack