If a bill introduced in Congress this month is adopted, national forests in Colorado would get to keep millions of dollars in fees that ski areas pay annually for permits to operate on public lands.
“Every year we send a significant amount of money via these ski resort fees to the (U.S. Forest Service), which ultimately goes into the general treasury,” said Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, whose congressional district includes eight ski areas from Loveland to Beaver Creek.
“In my view, and the view of many of my colleagues on a bipartisan basis, those fees ought to be kept local. We should have the ability at the federal level to recover those fees and send them back to the communities that are home to these incredible winter sports resorts,” he added.
Neguse and Sen. Michael Bennet are co-sponsoring the bill, known as the Ski Hill Resources for Economic Development — or SHRED — Act.
Over the past decade, ski areas in the U.S. collectively paid an average of $40 million annually in permit fees, according to forest service figures. For the past five years, more than $27 million of that came from Colorado resorts annually.
Under the SHRED Act, 80% of the permit fees ski areas pay would be spent in the forests where they were generated, which would be nearly $22 million annually in Colorado. The other 20% would be spent on other forest service projects at the discretion of the Secretary of Agriculture, whose department includes the forest service.
The bill comes at a time when forest service managers say they are underfunded, even as they are seeing huge spikes in visitation.
Spanning much of central Colorado, the White River National Forest is the busiest in the U.S., according to forest service visitation figures. It includes half of the state’s ski areas that are located on forest service land: Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, Snowmass, Sunlight, Beaver Creek, Vail, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin. It also includes eight of the state’s famed fourteeners, the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, Hanging Lake, the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area and other popular destinations that have become increasingly crowded in recent years.
“Every one of these forests is experiencing some real challenges, but in particular White River,” Neguse told The Denver Post. “It’s the most utilized national forest in the United States of America. That is going to come with consequences.
“Right now, we know there are insufficient resources to address the deferred maintenance, the trailhead improvements, facility maintenance, as well as a wide variety of services that the forest service and local communities provide on a day-to-day basis,” he added.
White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams has said that budget cuts have been a challenge for his staff. “Combining less staff with more and more visitors to the forest, it’s tough,” he told The Denver Post in 2021. “I don’t think we’re meeting the public’s expectations.” He declined an interview on the SHRED Act because the legislation is pending, but he did provide an email statement.
“The bill would increase efficiencies in administering ski area permits, agency staff training, visitor information, signage, wildfire preparedness coordination and enhanced avalanche-related safety education,” Fitzwilliams said. “We appreciate that this new version of the bill would provide for some of the retained permit fees to be used for administration of other types of commercial recreation permits, visitor services, and other purposes.”
The National Ski Areas Association, which represents more than 300 ski areas, supports the bill.
“It’s basically reinvesting where that money was generated,” said Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the NSAA.. “When the forest service is experiencing a spike in recreation demand, you need to respond to that. You need to be sufficiently staffed and resourced to handle that.”
The bill stipulates that 75% of the funds that come back to national forests where ski areas are located should be used for costs the forest service incurs in overseeing ski area operations there. The other 25% can be used for other forest needs. In the case of White River, that could exceed $4 million annually.
“Of the 25% part of that bucket, you can spend that money on trailhead services — things like parking, trash (pick-up), toilets, basic recreation needs,” Link said. “Some of those have been falling on local communities to make up the gap where the forest service isn’t resourced and staffed enough. You can repair and maintain forest service roads or trails, so you’re improving visitor access. You can use it for habitat restoration related to recreation, constructing and improving parking areas. All of those things can be funded through this legislation.”
The SHRED Act passed the House in the last Congressional session and got as far as committee approval in the Senate. Bennet, a Democrat, and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican, reintroduced the bill this month while Neguse introduced it in the House.
“Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy depends on strong partnership between ski areas, the U.S. Forest Service and our mountain towns,” Bennet said in a news release. “The SHRED Act will provide support to our popular Colorado mountain communities and national forests as their landscapes face increased demand.”
Colorado national forests where ski areas are located:
White River: Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, Snowmass, Sunlight, Beaver Creek, Vail, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin
Arapaho and Roosevelt: Loveland, Winter Park, Eldora
Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison: Telluride, Crested Butte, Powderhorn
Pike-San Isabel: Monarch, Cooper
Medicine Bow-Routt: Steamboat (includes Snowy Range in Wyoming)
San Juan: Purgatory
Rio Grande: Wolf Creek