Congress passed a Republican-sponsored bill last week that will cut down administrative costs for ski resorts and the U.S. Forest Service by untangling the complicated formula under which the resorts pay for the use of public land. The so-called Ski Fee Bill sparked opposition from Democrats on financial grounds. But that view obscures a deeper concern by environmentalists: the bill's virtual guarantee of sanctuary for the resorts when they renew their federal leases.
The bill has been widely supported by Colorado ski operators and politicians alike, with the exception of Senate hopeful Tom Strickland. Colorado senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Hank Brown are co-sponsors of the new legislation.
Environmentalists take issue with an amendment within the bill that exempts ski areas from undergoing a National Environmental Policy Act review when their forty-year leases with the government are renewed. They worry that the NEPA exemption will place the resorts in an unassailable position.
Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, says that not requiring a mandatory NEPA review every forty years is "another example of the government's all-out assault on any environmental law that has teeth or restricts big business from making money."
NEPA, originally enacted under the Nixon administration, requires the Forest Service to take a close look at the environmental consequences of a proposed action (such as issuing or renewing a ski-area permit) and to consider other alternatives for use of the land. NEPA reviews almost always include public meetings at which anyone can raise questions or offer suggestions regarding the land that's up for permit renewal.
By creating NEPA exemptions for ski resorts, Zukoski says, the government is denying the public an opportunity to examine the long-term effects of ski resorts on the community at large. "Ski resorts look the same [after forty years], but the world changes around them," says Zukoski. "NEPA's power is that it gives the public political leverage by providing them with information."
Dave Heerwagen, a U.S. Forest Service deputy director of recreation, claims that the wording in the bill regarding the NEPA reviews is misleading. He contends that the exemption is included solely to expedite renewals and cut down on administrative costs. A NEPA review is costly and can take anywhere from four to six weeks to carry out, adding several headaches to the renewal process.
Heerwagen is quick to point out that the Forest Service is still required by law to perform an immediate environmental impact analysis, regardless of the NEPA exemption, if any changes (such as the addition of new lifts or runs) are made to a ski area during the course of the resort's lease.
The Forest Service predicts the new bill will save it at least $200,000 annually in administrative audit costs and will raise approximately $1 million for the government within seven years.
But environmentalists such as Zukoski feel that the NEPA exemption gives ski resorts too much leeway.
"Talk about snow jobs," says Zukoski. "They [the ski resorts] couldn't get Congress to give them the [ski area] land outright, so now they're trying for the next best thing: no oversight when the permit comes up for renewal."
Democrats, most notably President Clinton, held up the bill until the eleventh hour, but not because of environmental issues. They were driven by financial concerns. Many Democratic opponents felt that the fees would not return fair market value to the government for use of public land. They softened their positions on the bill when Republicans inserted a provision that allows for possible increases in fees after three years.
The fee-calculation process under the old system was laborious and ran into problems because it was based upon subjective judgments by the Forest Service. According to Sam Anderson of the National Ski Areas Association, the process often resulted in "bad blood" between ski operators and the Forest Service. The new system bases its fee calculations solely upon revenue numbers and eliminates many of the gray areas that plagued the old method.
"Its a cleaner, simpler system," says Melanie Mills of Colorado Ski Country, USA, which represents 24 Colorado ski resorts. "It will eliminate a lot of legal hassles that we've had in the past...Our resorts are unified behind this bill."
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One of the most outspoken opponents of the Ski Fee Bill was Tom Strickland, whose law firm happens to represent Vail, one of the Colorado resorts that will have to pay more this year under the new bill.
Vail, which paid about $2.5 million in rent fees in 1994 (the highest of any resort in the country), will experience an increase in fees primarily because of its size (it is the only resort in the nation subject to the new fee system's highest revenue bracket of 4 percent) and new amenities planned for construction this year. These additions include a new high-speed gondola, quad chair lift and base facility. New construction was exempt from the fee system in the past, but the new bill allows for no such deductions.
Despite the possibility of higher fees in the near future, Vail officials have said that they are "100 percent behind the new bill."
Strickland, however, has been adamant in his opposition. He and his spokesman say that's because of the NEPA exemption, not his law firm's links to Vail. Strickland aide Tom Schilling says the Denver Democrat "has been on a leave of absence from his law firm for a year and has nothing to do with Vail.