Does the Forest Service love communities as much as it loves ski areas?

  Readers of Snow Country magazine recently discovered a special advertising supplement tucked between stories of equipment and resorts: "Stewards of the Land: Skiing and the U.S. Forest Service, a public and private alliance."


The 15-page glossy infomercial, complete with ads of Colorado's premier resorts, paints a rosy picture of the 140 ski areas that use national forest lands. "America's winter playgrounds' are run by environmentally sensitive ski companies committed to recycling, environmental education and disabled skier programs. And the Forest Service is an appreciative - but tough - landlord, putting the companies through rigorous planning processes before giving out permits.


As for those who might question whether the relationship between the feds and the ski industry is too cozy, "the Forest Service's Jack Ward Thomas promises: "not as long as I'm Chief." "


Such rhetoric outrages Luke Danielson, a Denver attorney who has fought ski developments on national forests for two decades. "The Forest Service has always bent over backwards to accommodate ski areas," he says.


The Forest Service likes to downplay the off-site effects the ski resorts generate, he says, and often cites the statistic that ski areas cover less than 1 percent of the national forests. "That makes it seem like nothing," says Danielson. "Take a look at Aspen and Vail and tell me that's nothing. The agency is like the runaway father that won't pay child support. They create a huge problem and then they don't take any responsibility for their role in it."


Neither does the Snow Country ad mention off-site impacts such as open space swallowed by second homes and condos, service workers living in trailer parks far beyond the resorts, or the uprooting and displacement of working-class communities. The magazine simply states, "There is no question mountain communities benefit from ski area prosperity."


Forest Service officials say they are well aware of the associated impacts of ski resorts. "We are required by law to look at issues such as housing and traffic," says John Borton, who is coordinating the Adam's Rib supplemental environmental impact statement. In the case of Adam's Rib, "we could decide that the impacts are too great."


But that has never happened, says Rocky Smith of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. The ski resorts turned down by the agency are generally those with shaky financial backing, he says, not those likely to catalyze massive development of private land.


Critics also say the Forest Service fails to look at the cumulative effects of piling up ski resorts in one area. Thirteen ski resorts are permitted on Colorado's White River National Forest, and a few of them, including Vail, are in the process of expanding. Eagle County and some environmentalists have asked the Forest Service to do a regional EIS that would consider all of these projects - including Adam's Rib - before handing out any more permits.


Officials at the Colorado Division of Wildlife say they're concerned that Adam's Rib will be the straw that breaks the camel's back along the I-70 corridor.


"You could try and come up with ways to deal with this project if you look at it by itself," says wildlife biologist John Toolen, "but we're concerned that Adam's Rib will lead to the urbanization of the entire valley." That, he says, will further reduce habitat for already stressed big game herds and sensitive species such as the lynx. "We don't feel the Forest Service has really looked at these issues."


John Korb, who recently retired after 36 years in the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Regional office, says the agency has taken steps to address off-site effects of ski resorts. The agency now encourages ski companies to become four-season resorts in order to provide more permanent jobs, he notes, and it prefers expansions of existing areas over the creation of new resorts.


Recently, White River Supervisor Sonny LaSalle made the controversial suggestion that the Forest Service provide land for the ski companies so they could build worker housing (HCN, 10/16/95).


But the Forest Service can't solve all problems arising from ski areas, says Korb. "We're a land management agency, not a public utility," he says. Like the ski workers, "I have friends in D.C. who commute three hours to work and return to homes they can't afford, too."


Korb says almost without exception local communities want the Forest Service to approve ski resorts. But that may be changing. Eagle County's reluctance to embrace Adam's Rib may signal a weakening of the pro-ski era, says Ted Zukowski, an attorney for the Denver-based Land and Water Fund.


"For years the Forest Service has only felt the pressure from the ski companies," he says. "With Adam's Rib, we may be seeing the local politics turning around. If Eagle County stays strong, the Forest Service will stand up and take notice."


* P.L.