U.S. Forest Service Public Comment Request on Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Act
The Forest Service recently accepted public comments on an amendment to the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act (SAROEA). This amendment addresses and clarifies additional year round activities allowed within a ski resort on public land. These include mountain bike parks, hiking trails, zip lines, and other “natural resource” based amenities. Nature based activities have the ability to get people outside and help them appreciate nature. The amendment also seeks to clarify the acceptability of “amusement park” type rides. It is important that we let the Forest Service know that amusement park rides have no place within our National Forests. Amusement park rides distract from the wild and natural beauty of the Wasatch Mountains.
Save Our Canyons comments on Proposed Directives for administering the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act
Thomas L. Tidwell
Chief, United States Forest Service
Department of Agriculture
Re: Proposed Directives for administering the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act
Dear Chief Tidwell,
This correspondence sets forth the comments of Citizens’ Committee to Save Our Canyons to the Forest Service’s notice of intent to develop directives for the implementation of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011 (SAROEA), an amendment to the Ski Area Permits Act of 1986.
Save Our Canyons (SOC) is a non-profit corporation dedicated to protecting the wildness and beauty of the Wasatch Mountains and its canyons and foothills. Founded in 1972, it currently has over 1,700 hundred members, who share a deep appreciation of the environment, ecology, quiet, solitude, and recreation opportunities these lands provide, and an interest in maintaining these qualities. A large portion of SOC’s members frequently enjoy recreational opportunities both the developed sites (inclusive of ski areas), but also in the backcountry areas of the Uinta Wasatch Cache National Forest that are certain to be impacted under the proposed rule.
SOC appreciates the opportunity to participate early in the process of developing standards for the implementation of the SAROEA amendments to the Ski Area Permits Act. These comments are as follows:
1. In its four-decade history, SOC has witnessed an inexorable growth in the activities ski resorts are authorized to conduct on public lands in Utah, and it is apparent that this pattern is prevalent throughout the country. While, the pace of this growth has perhaps been moderate in relation to the development sought by the ski resorts, the fact remains that the clear tendency over time is for the agency to authorize more development of otherwise, or formally, wild public lands. Clearly, the proposed directives represent another occasion on which the Forest Service seeks to enhance the industrialization of the public lands entrusted to it by expanding the range of authorized activities beyond those set forth in the Act (codified at 16 U.S.C. § 487b(c)(3)).
Of course, SOC recognizes that, in addition to identifying specific activities the Forest Service may authorize, the Act requires that the agency develop standards that, when applied to specific proposals, might justify the authorization of additional activities. However, SOC urges the Forest Service, in exercising its broad authority to develop and apply these standards, to take this opportunity to pull back from its clear historic tendency to allow resorts to do ever more and to minimize the further loss and diminishment of this country’s finite, irreplaceable wild lands.
2. SOC has noted a particularly unfortunate trend of ski resorts to develop more amusement-park-like rides and other activities that have little or no necessary nexus to the natural setting. SOC asks that the new directives, when fully developed, put an end to this trend. It is critical that they ensure that the only activities authorized are those for which enjoyment and appreciation of natural beauty is an inherent and necessary motivation for participation, rather than those for which nature simply provides a pleasant backdrop, or a few needed physical properties employed by a recreation facility, such as topography (for gravity-powered descents, for example).
3. With regard to the suggestion stated in the Federal Register notice that the commercial availability of additional activities “could build a deeper appreciation for nature that could lead to further exploration of NFS lands beyond ski areas,” SOC contends that this represents speculation, at best, and that, in fact, there is at least equal reason to believe that this is untrue. First, by expanding availability of “managed” outdoor experiences, many members of the public who may otherwise feel an inducement to explore what is available on public lands would not look beyond the expanded choices offered by the resorts. Second, increasing the size, scope, and intensity of commercial uses inevitably decreases the choices the public has for experiencing truly natural settings on both resort and adjacent lands.
4. Procedurally, it appears that the development of Forest Service directives is not responsive to the obligations imposed by SAROEA on the Forest Service. Under the section now codified at 16 U.S.C. §497b(d), Congress required the agency to promulgate regulations for implementing the act. The development of directives for the Forest Service Manual and Forest Service Handbook does not constitute the promulgation of regulations under the Act.
Our understanding of the catalyst for this rule was in response to request from numerous resorts to construct mountain coasters. Whether that is true or not, it is a use that the agency is aware of, however, this rule provides no clarity on the issue. Nature based activities that are developed sustainably such as mountain bike trails or hiking trails, can be developed in a way that highlights the natural environment and allows a wider audience to experience the beauty of an area. Amusement park style rides, however, have no place in our national forests. Our National Forests are a place where one can escape the city and experience nature, and therefore nature should be the focus, not the built environment. There is no shortage of urban or built environments for these types of activities to exist, however, wild places and natural environments continue to be lost.
The Forest Service has done well to recognize that “Other summer uses have facilities that are common to amusement park, such as merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, miniature train rides, and roller coasters, that do not meet the criteria in SAROEA.” Additionally, the recognition of the need for a list of “recreation activities that are prohibited at ski areas based on the exclusions in SAROEA” will be of benefit. The list proposed in the updated directives is good except that it only excludes amusement parks and not amusement park rides. It is understandable that the agency would rather provide guidance rather than approving or prohibiting certain activities (other than the ones specifically pointed out by Congress in the Act), but in doing that you are essentially setting the rule up for a challenge rather than providing the clarity necessary to understand what is or is not explicitly allowed. Will a mountain coaster be allowed? How about alpine slides? Miniature golf courses? One could argue those are different from golf courses. Similarly, these types of activities generally accompany the use of loud speakers to communicate to patrons, and to magnify music levels. Will there be any efforts to control noise? Currently there are areas in Little Cottonwood Canyon where you can barely hear your climbing partner because of the ruckus at resorts in the vicinity.
The update to FSM 2343.11 paragraph 3 is beneficial in that it encourages activities that connect visitors to the natural environment. This policy, however, needs further clarification and should address possible facilities that accompany such activities. There should be an emphasis placed on prohibiting facilities that distract from the natural environment, or distract from others’ enjoyment of adjacent natural environments and promote things that emphasize the natural landscape, ecology, geology, and the intrinsic beauty of our national forests. Improvements to the natural slope, gradient, vegetation cover, alteration of waterways, or other manmade disturbances should be prohibited (save for minor trail work or improvements) solely for the purposes of summer recreational activities.
Another important issue is public access to ski resorts on public land. As ski touring, snowshoeing, and other snow-based human powered activities become more popular, there is an increase in the use of ski resort areas by those who are not taking the lift. Being that the resorts are on public land, the forest service should work with ski resorts to develop plans that continue to allow access to these lands by such users. Additionally, the impacts of climate change are reducing the total area of backcountry terrain that receives adequate snow coverage. Most ski resorts are located on the high elevation, north-facing slopes. These are the same slopes that are desirable for winter backcountry users as they generally hold the most snow. As the lower elevation terrain becomes less appealing for this user group, there will be an increased interest in the areas in and around ski resorts. It is therefore important for the Forest Service to consider the increasing value of this terrain and take measures to ensure fair access to such terrain. Furthermore, protecting winter backcountry terrain from additional resort or commercial encroachment by limiting slack or side country access from ski area lifts or tramways should be considered as part of this rule.
Further clarification is needed in the definition of an “amusement park.” A specific proximity must replace “in close proximity.” The current definition is subjective and unclear. Does this mean that a ski resort can have multiple “amusement park rides” so long as they are not next to each other? The wording should be strengthened to prevent resorts from building multiple “amusement park rides,” preferably none at all as we feel they are inappropriate in a forest setting, within their boundaries.
We hope that these comments will assist the agency in its creation of a rule to ensure the protection of our finite natural resources all the while providing diverse opportunities on public land that serve so many important functions.
Save Our Canyons