Udall accused of opening recreational Pandora’s box

Coming soon to a ski area near you: water parks, carnival rides, go-kart tracks and an overall urban sense of what constitutes recreation.

Not exactly, said a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who has introduced a bill that would change a 1986 law governing ski-area permits on National Forest land so that the Forest Service has more latitude to allow year-round recreation other than skiing.

A strange mix of environmentalists and wealthy resort-area homeowners has raised concerns about the vague wording of the bill, which could allow ski-area operators to radically urbanize the relatively natural setting of resorts operating on public lands.

“We’re supportive of some modifications to the act, but we feel like Udall’s bill, as currently written, is too broad and could authorize virtually any recreational activity or facility,” said Ryan Bidwell, executive director of the ski-area watchdog group Colorado Wild, which has joined 15 other western environmental groups to oppose inappropriate uses.

“Basically urbanized activities like roller coasters, water parks, concert amphitheaters, mini-golf — facilities that don’t depend on a natural setting at all, that aren’t dependent on the resources that national forest lands offer,” Bidwell said.

Udall’s staffers say the bill, which would now have to be amended in committee or on the House floor, does not compel the Forest Service to approve any particular activity or facility, but does require that the activities be natural-resource-based, encourage outdoor recreation and are in harmony with the natural setting.

“The bill is narrowly targeted,” Udall said in a statement. “I think it will help encourage more people to enjoy Colorado’s outdoor recreation opportunities — and that is also good for our mountain community economy.

“But Congress shouldn’t get into the business of deciding whether any particular activity or facility is right for a particular ski area. The Forest Service is in the best position to decide that, and the point of the bill is to give them clear authority to make that call.”

When contacted about the issue for this story, a spokeswoman for Bob Schaffer, Udall’s Republican opponent in the race for the U.S. Senate, initially indicated a desire to weigh in, but subsequently did not disclose the former congressman’s position on the bill.

Right now the law limits ski-area permits to alpine and Nordic skiing, not even mentioning the sport of snowboarding or alpine slides, mini-golf courses and mountain-bike trails and skills parks that already currently operate at ski areas around the state.

“This legislation more accurately reflects what is already taking place at mountain resorts and would help to clarify and affirm the Forest Service’s authority to allow appropriate year-round activities,” Vail Resorts spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga said, adding that ski areas for years have been trying to develop more year-round business models.

“Our mountain resort communities have been working hard to expand the cultural and recreational offerings in non-winter seasons that appeal to families in order to build a healthy economy with year-round employment opportunities,” Ladyga said.

Vail Resorts in currently in litigation with the Beaver Creek Property Owners Association over the ski company’s proposal to install an alpine slide (wheeled carts ridden downhill on a long fiberglass track) at Beaver Creek ski area. A gag order was imposed by the judge in that case, but at a 2006 hearing on the matter, an attorney for the homeowners made their feelings clear.

“One, it’s a breach of trust, and number two it’s a nuisance,” homeowners’ attorney Rick Johnson said of the slide, which he claimed violated the resort’s development agreements. “It’s not Disneyland.”

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.

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