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Public Lands, Private Profits

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31 July 2010, 7:19 AM
National Forest ski areas to become year-round amusement parks?
White River National Forest, CO - Ted Zukoski photo

America's National Forests, like most public lands, have long been used to generate private sector profit.  Logging, mining, oil and gas, and livestock grazing generate cash for companies and individuals, usually at the expense of wildlife habitat, clean water and low-impact recreation.

The ski industry also feeds at the public trough.  More than 100 ski areas are located on National Forest land, running the gamut from small family operations to the mega-resort corporations like Vail Resorts and Intrawest. 

But lately the pickings haven't been rich enough for the industry's taste. Ski areas want to draw paying customers when there's no snow on the ground.

For years, the solution to this problem was draining creeks at low flow to make snow.  Climate change may make that harder.  The ski lobby's solution is to change the law that limits ski areas using public lands to, well, skiing.  Instead, National Forests should be the home of amusement park-style summer fun.  Alpine slides!  Zip lines!  Climbing walls!  (Because there's a shortage of rocks in our forests to climb on.  Or at least of artificial rocks you can charge customers to climb on.)

The ski industry's plea for summer-time corporate welfare has fallen on friendly ears in Congress.  Last month, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved S. 607, a bill opening the door for alpine coasters, climbing walls and other four-season revenue generating activity on national forests. 

It can be argued that ski areas are already industrialized landscapes, so what's the harm?  Your typical ski area pockmarks the forest with lift towers, restaurants and permanent clear cuts that will never be allowed to heal.  So what's wrong with a little more development to keep mountain towns alive in the summer?

For one thing, ski area boundaries don't just include manicured runs. As Colorado Wild's Ryan Demmy Bidwell pointed out in testimony to Congress last year, some parts of many ski areas' "permit boundaries" include roadless areas and undeveloped (for now) lands.  More impact in the summer months, or in the wrong places, means less room for wildlife.

For another thing, it's just another galling example of powerful interests using our land to pad their wallets.  When they do so, the public lands get a little less wild and a little less public.

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