Friday, September 26, 2008

Legislation could allow more ski area recreation

Sun Valley may not be affected

Express Staff Writer

Federal legislation introduced by a Colorado congressman would promote year-round recreation at ski areas. It is unclear, however, to what extent such a change in federal policy would affect plans at Sun Valley Resort, which leases federal land to operate its ski area on Bald Mountain.

The legislation, introduced in July by Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., would revise the 1986 Ski Areas Permit Act to expand allowed uses of national forests by ski areas. Udall introduced the legislation at the request of the National Ski Areas Association.

According to a Udall press release, the bill recognizes that other winter sports aside from skiing occur at ski areas and that ski areas can be used for other forms of recreation throughout the year. The bill is designed to boost year-round recreation opportunities and to improve Colorado's recreation economy.

That doesn't mean, however, that it would not affect ski areas operating on federal land outside Colorado. One such ski area is Sun Valley's facilities on Bald Mountain.

"This bill addresses an ambiguity in federal law governing ski area permits that would probably surprise most Coloradans," Udall said in the press release. "Most of us know that ski areas have more to offer than just downhill skiing and snowboarding in the winter months. These areas are increasingly the preferred destination for family vacations and weekend recreation year round."

Udall said his bill would make it clear that other appropriate activities can be allowed. As an example, snowboarding is not even mentioned in the bill as a viable use of federal land at a permitted ski area. The bill would authorize additional recreational activities and facilities that are "determined appropriate, encourage outdoor recreation and harmonize to the natural environment to the extent practicable."

Environmental groups in Colorado, however, said Udall's bill is too broad. Ryan Demmy Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild, a ski industry watchdog, told the Vail Daily that the measure "leaves the door open to urbanized recreation activities like roller coasters and water parks that are inappropriate anywhere on national forest land."

In Sun Valley, however, there are no plans on the drawing board that would challenge the status quo, said Mountain Manager Peter Sterns.

"The door is open to make requests for certain uses, but we don't have anything specific," he said.

Sun Valley Marketing Director Jack Sibbach referred to the resort's master planning process, in which it has proposed new lifts, ski terrain and lodges over three phases of construction. Though numerous improvements are already planned or approved, they are not necessarily outside the scope of the 1986 act.

"I don't know anybody here who is talking about anything else," he said. "I haven't heard any conversation about anything."

But resorts like Vail have already raised the bar. In the mid-1990s, the huge Colorado resort added an on-mountain activity center called Adventure Ridge. It's a place where tubing, snow biking and other snow-sliding activities take place in a small, lighted area near the top of the gondola. Newer additions include a go-cart-like amusement with mini-snowmobiles for kids and a bungee-tethered trampoline.

The Sawtooth National Forest's Ketchum Ranger District oversees administration of Sun Valley's permits, and District Ranger Kurt Nelson is the man who must sign off on any new plans.

"There's always a question of what is an appropriate use permitted on federal lands," he said. "Does it fit with more of a nature-type activity? A lot of proposals (nationwide) that come through just aren't appropriate if you stack them up against that."

But Sun Valley has not ever floated any ideas that are out of the ordinary, Nelson said. And that may have to do with the fact that the company runs a second ski area at Dollar Mountain.

"We're fortunate here because Dollar Mountain is private, and that serves as a venue for uses that might occur that are outside the scope of normal use," Nelson said.

Nelson pointed out that Bald Mountain's consistently steep slopes over 3,400 vertical feet would have difficulty accommodating something like an alpine slide.

"Even on Dollar they had some challenges putting in the tubing hill in order to do it safely and still provide the thrill," he said.

As an associated issue, Nelson referred to a land swap Sun Valley has informally proposed. The Forest Service would trade roughly 40 acres of land on a sagebrush-swept bench near Trail Creek for roughly 40 acres of land near the confluence of Trail Creek and the Big Wood River. The land near Trail Creek would be used to build nine more holes of golf.

"Really, the only plan we have is an aerial photo map that says if they were going to move forward this is an area that would be suitable," Nelson said. "But that's a little bit different angle on our local ski area and resort because we haven't had proposals for alpine slides or Frisbee golf or anything like that."

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