Colorado mountain industries brace for shutdown fallout

SUMMIT COUNTY — While national parks have grabbed the spotlight as victims of the federal government shutdown, the impacts are also spreading unevenly to the management of other federal public lands in Colorado, including campgrounds, ski areas, sawmills and logging operations under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages more than 14.5 million acres of public land in Colorado. Altogether, federal agencies control more than a third (36.6 percent) of the land in the state.

And don’t even think about going out to collect firewood on a national forest. Until the shutdown ends, the agency has halted the sale of all types of permits, including recreation, firewood, forest products and mineral materials.

Loggers and sawmills in the area administered by the agency’s Rocky Mountain regional office are likely to start feeling the pain within the next few days, but ski resorts operating on national forest lands apparently have a special dispensation that makes them immune to the shutdown.

The Forest Service administers seasonal and day-to-day operations by both industries and ski resorts are preparing to operate without Forest Service oversight, according to Colorado Ski Country USA, the statewide industry trade group.

Yet last week, the Forest Service notified 450 timber purchasers across the country that timber sales and stewardship contracts will be suspended. Some Colorado sawmills, which have just been revived from the brink of financial collapse in the past few years, could run out of logs in the next few days, according to the Colorado Timber Industry Association.

“This could not have come at a worse time for the sawmills in Colorado just struggling to get back on their feet,” said Tom Troxel, of the Intermountain Forest Association. “I talked to one sawmill operator today. they have a four-week stockpile … The real effect will be next spring. Everybody has to build a stockpile for next spring, and you just don’t really make up those lost days,” Troxel said.

The official Forest Service document on shut-down plans doesn’t mention any specific exemption for ski areas, nor does it explain why the timber industry and ski industry would be treated differently.

“The shutdown shouldn’t affect opening day,” said Colorado Ski Country USA spokesperson Jennifer Rudolph. “Our office has been in touch with the Forest Service … the way it works is, the ski areas are the operators … everything that was needed for the season is already in place,” she said.

Similarly, the shutdown hasn’t affected work on the Peak 6 expansion at Breckenridge Ski Area, according to Vail Resorts spokesperson Kristin Williams.

“FS personnel are not on site but we have communication in place if we need something,” Williams said via email. “We flew the towers for the lower lift over the weekend and everything is progressing as expected. We expect to fly the next set of towers in about a week. This stage is actually not terribly complex; most of the work is in the air,” she said.

Generally, Forest Service winter sports rangers are on hand during ski area expansion projects to ensure that all federal environmental requirements are being met, and that construction crews adhere to best-management practices.

Of course, because of the furloughs, there are no Forest Service officials available to provide any definitive answers, but some former agency officials aren’t as sanguine about the potential impacts to ski areas.

“If this goes on until mid-October ski areas will or will not be opening,” former Forest Service planner Sharon Friedman wrote in the New Century of Forest Planning blog recently, explaining that there has been a lot of uncertainty over how the shutdown will play out on national forest lands.

The shutdown could affect the Peak 6 project if work on the ground doesn’t match up exactly with requirements outlined in the written plan, said Ed Ryberg, a retired Forest Service ranger who headed the agency’s national winter sports program for many years.

In that case, Forest Service personnel could be required to eyeball the changes on the ground before moving ahead with the work. But in any case, each national forest has some essential personnel that remain on duty. In the case of the economically crucial ski industry, those officials would likely have the authority to make the decision, Ryberg said.

In a past federal government shutdown, some Forest Service officials did express concern about ski area operations, according to Ryberg.

That shutdown came during the heart of the ski season, from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996. When a national forest supervisor in Utah expressed concerns about the agency’s ability to ensure public safety at ski areas during the event, he was immediately called into questions by leaders of the National Ski Areas Association, Ryberg said.

In the current situation, it’s conceivable that the resorts could continue to operate under routine plans, he added.

In other parts of Colorado, hunters — as well as rural communities — are paying the price for congressional intransigence. Some hunters who have waited up to 12 years for the chance to bag an antelope are being forced to return their tags.

And in the rural San Luis Valley, where fall waterfowl hunting provides a critical economic boost during the fall, the impacts will be felt at mom-and-pop hunting shops, lodges and restaurants, as the federal wildlife refuges are locked up.

The Forest Service has also ordered the closure of campgrounds on national forest lands run by private companies under an agency concession permit. While most high country campgrounds were scheduled to close around mid-October anyway, those companies will still take an economic hit from the forced closure.

“This is a thin-margin business. Every weekend is important,” said Marily Reese, director of theNational Forest Recreation Association, a trade group representing many of those concession-holders.

Reese said the closure of the privately run campgrounds is not necessary because the companies don’t get paid by the Forest Service. Instead, they take in the money and then pay a percentage to the agency.

In that light, the order to shut the campgrounds is “vindicative, petty bullying” by the administration, Reese said.

“The White House should be ashamed. Recreation is not a partisan issue.  Public lands are open to Republicans and Democrats alike. There is no reason to shut down these businesses,” she said, adding that it will have a ripple effect on hundreds of people who work in jobs associated with the operation of the campgrounds.

In past shutdowns, Forest Service campgrounds run by private companies stayed open. This year, the agency was once again prepared to allow normal operations, but a last-minute directive from the Obama administration changed the game, she said.

[ Image by Bob Berwyn.]