Tempestuous political winds are blowing through Colorado's busiest forest.

She sees the McInnis plan as nothing but a big wet kiss to the ski industry and industrial users of the forest. "In terms of political clout, the ski industry has it," she says.

McInnis is well known in political circles for his fundraising abilities. Although few people outside his Western Slope district know much about him, there is widespread speculation that he will run for the Senate if Ben Nighthorse Campbell retires. McInnis has more than $1 million in the bank and has raised huge amounts of money from people connected to the ski industry or involved in high-country real estate.

More than a half-dozen Vail Resorts executives shelled out several thousand dollars in contributions to McInnis in 1999, even though it was not an election year, including Vail president Andrew Daly, who gave $1,000, and several of Daly's managers, who together chipped in another $2,500. Lawyers who work for Vail also gave it up. Norm Brownstein and Steven Denby of Brownstein Hyatt & Farber each gave $1,000, while five attorneys from another Denver firm, Otten Robinson Neff and Ragonetti, gave a total of $1,500. In addition, Copper Mountain Resort president Harry Mosgrove gave $500.

Even bicycles can damage the forest ecosystem.
Even bicycles can damage the forest ecosystem.

Real-estate interests make up a core group of financial backers for McInnis as well. Eight different officers for the Broe Companies -- which has been heavily involved in developing the Eagle Vail resort -- gave $1,000 each. And the congressman drew additional funding from several real estate lobbies, including an astonishing $10,000 from the national Realtors political-action committee in 1998. Other contributors involved in real estate include Larry Mizel ($1,000), East West Partners ($500), George Gillett ($1,000), Andy Wiesener ($1,000), Fuller & Company ($1,000), Brian Hamilton ($2,000), Gilbert Johnson ($500), Walt Koelbel ($1,000), William Murphy ($1,000), Michael Cooper ($1,000), Ron Pettigrew ($2,000), BUILD PAC ($2,500), Karyn Contino ($2,000), and the Mortgage Bankers PAC ($1,000).

In addition, McInnis collected $14,000 over the past two years from people involved in the mining industry.

Despite the financial backing, however, Josh Penry scoffs at the notion that McInnis's criticism of the Forest Service is motivated by campaign contributions. "Those allegations are false," he says. "That's a diversion the environmentalists came up with. It's a personal attack."

He also insists that it's misleading to claim that McInnis's plan would give the green light to major ski-area expansion. He notes that any such plans would still have to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and earn approval from the Forest Service. "The Forest Service has repeatedly turned down expansion requests in the last decade," he says. "The congressman doesn't believe skiing is inherently evil."

Environmentalists say the ski industry and real-estate interests are now pushing for major expansions so that they can sell more of the expensive "ski in/ski" out properties, not because there is more demand for skiing terrain.

In fact, the number of skiers hitting the slopes in Colorado has stagnated in recent years, but since companies like Vail Resorts are now publicly traded (the company's stock was trading at $16 per share last week, down from a high of $23 per share in September), the firms are under pressure from Wall Street to increase profits, and the sale of these lavish vacation homes and condos can pump up revenues even if lift-ticket sales prove disappointing.

"If you take a close look at the terrain the ski areas want for expansions, it's always near privately owned land they want to develop," says Jeff Berman of Colorado Wild, an environmental group. "It's an abuse of public land for real-estate development and profiteering."

Skier visits at Vail declined from 1.6 million during the 1997-98 ski season to 1.3 million the next year. Figures released last week for the 1999-2000 season show Vail's skier visits at about 1.34 million, up about 2.5 percent. However, skier visits at both Beaver Creek and Keystone declined by 5 percent this year. Total figures on Colorado skier visits were down 4.5 percent this year, dropping below 11 million for the first time in ten years. In addition, Forest Service figures show that the number of skiable acres in the White River forest has grown by 77 percent since 1987. During the same period, the number of skier visits rose by just 24 percent.

Vail spokesman Paul Witt insists the drop in skier visits is a temporary phenomenon and says that while Keystone and Beaver Creek have seen fewer skiers, Vail and Breckenridge have had more. "Skier visits in the United States are growing, albeit slowly. We think the fundamentals of the ski industry remain very strong," he says. "People are looking at one or two years of data and projecting the death of the skiing industry. That's completely wrong."

Vail, however, was concerned enough to take out an insurance policy that protected the company's four resorts in the event of a decline in ticket sales -- and collected more than $10 million on that policy during the past season.

But Witt says Vail Resorts still needs to have the option to expand its ski areas in the future, and Alternative D would take that away. "We don't support the philosophy of Alternative D. It's too restrictive a management plan for public use of the forest. It could result in increased crowding on the slopes and higher lift-ticket prices."

With the notable exception of the Aspen Skiing Company resorts, every ski area in the White River forest is looking at major expansion. But Alternative D would limit this growth to areas that have already won approval, including those at Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone and Ski Sunlight. Nevertheless, most of the others have plans for huge new additions: Keystone is eyeing Independence Mountain, Arapahoe Basin covets Montezuma Bowl, Breckenridge wants to add two peaks, and Copper Mountain Resort is pulling a proposal to triple its size.

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