WASHINGTON, D.C. - Legislation often resembles siege warfare back in the days of the battering ram and the catapult.
The attackers figure that the more
stuff they throw at the walls - rocks, spears, little guys - the
better the odds that something will get
They're right, because the defenders
tend to relax after each major onslaught, especially if the next
onslaught isn't so major. Having beaten back the regiment
assaulting the wall with ladders, the defending troops might not
notice the squad sneaking through the back
In that light, consider the omnibus parks
bill, now in House-Senate Conference. It no longer includes the
"wilderness' bill that would have opened most of Utah's roadless
land to development. That was the big burning fireball blocked at
the ramparts by New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley's
Congratulating themselves, the
guardians of the citadel weren't looking when agents of the ski
resorts slipped through a crack in the
They are promoting a bill that would: a)
preserve the current (and low) level of fees which ski resorts pay
for use of Forest Service land; and b) let them renew their 40-year
leases without environmental
Specifically, the bill says that "the
reissuance of a ski area permit to provide activities similar in
nature and amount to the activities provided under the previous
permit shall not constitute a major federal action for the purposes
of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969."
That means no environmental impact statement, no
environmental assessment and quite possibly no examination by any
public body, state or federal. The legislation itself explains its
virtue: "To reduce federal costs."
explanation seems disingenuous. The resorts, not the taxpayers, pay
for most of the environmental studies. Under this bill, operators
will simply pay their fees and get their
Sponsored by Rep. Don Young of Alaska,
the chairman of the House (once Natural) Resources Committee, the
bill is a hard one to combat. This isn't like the Utah wilderness
fight, where opponents could display pictures of the starkly
beautiful Upper Spanish Valley or the San Rafael Swell to bolster
the case for preserving them. With the ski permits, whatever
desecration might occur won't be apparent for years. Nothing is
degraded at the outset except a government
Besides, it's not as though the
government is ever likely to refuse to renew a permit to a company
with millions invested on a mountaintop. What good would an
environmental impact statement do, anyway, especially when limited
to "activities similar in nature and amount" to what's already
Well, that's a vague term. "Is a 10
percent expansion "similar'?" asks Edward B. Zukoski, the staff
attorney at the Land and Water Fund in Boulder, Colo. "Is 20
Besides, even if the resort itself
does not change much in 40 years, the world around it may. A permit
with no conditions might be fitting for a resort surrounded by
forest. If that resort becomes surrounded by condominiums and
hotels, a few conditions might be in order on the
Sam Anderson, the director of government
affairs for the National Ski Areas Association based in Lakewood,
Colo., has a plausible reply.
(process) is not the place to make that decision," Anderson said,
noting that under their permits, ski resorts every year "submit an
operating plan," which itself can trigger the NEPA process. In
addition, he said, the public's interest is protected by the
regular national forest planning process.
Forest Service says Anderson is right - probably. The permits are
reviewed annually, according to Forest Service spokesman Alexine
Napolitano, "and any (expansion) plans would have to be considered
But would they trigger a NEPA
process? "It would depend. It probably would if it affected the
watershed, or timber resources or a sensitive area." Still, there
would be no certainty of a NEPA-level review if the bill
This Congress may not only dismantle much
of the government's clout over ski resorts in general, it could
also do an end-run around the Forest Service and execute a land
trade for ski area development in Utah - a land trade the Forest
Service thinks is too big.
The land trade is
custom designed for one Earl Holding of Sinclair Oil, Little
America, Salt Lake City real estate and the Sun Valley Ski Resort.
Under the bill proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. James Hansen,
both Utah Republicans, Sun Valley would get 1,320 acres at the foot
of its Snowbasin ski resort near Ogden (HCN, 10/30/95). Holding
would put condos, a hotel and a golf course on the land, now
undeveloped if not exactly pristine.
how a final appraisal turns out, the government would get part or
all of four parcels which, like the land it would give up, abut the
Wasatch National Forest not far from Ogden.
has already been an EIS for the land at the foot of Snowbasin.
That's because Holding has coveted the land for years, and a 1990
EIS concluded that, with some restrictions, the government could
prudently cede 700 acres. But the 1,320-acre option was considered
and rejected by the Forest Service.
swap be an indefensible giveaway? Randy Welsh, the district ranger
in Ogden, says that in return for the 1,320 acres, the government
would get high-quality "comparable mountain land," and, he said,
"the public should receive equal value."
proposed land swap is obviously an evasion of the usual procedure.
In fairness to Holding and his partners, a good case can be made
that the usual procedure in federal land trades takes far too long.
Still, no one has explained why this particular swap should be
decided by what amounts to private
Not that an explanation hasn't been
attempted. Snowbasin has been chosen the site of the downhill races
for the 2002 Winter Olympics. This provided Holding with a debating
point: The Olympics need those hotel rooms.
they don't. Olympic officials have never said those facilities are
needed. What drives the proposed land swap is not the Olympics. It
is Holding's desire to build hotels and condos on the land,
combined with his political clout.
siege is being conducted by men committed to throwing every
possible weapon at the walls. To do otherwise would be ... well, it
would be downright un-medieval.
Jon Margolis, once a
columnist and political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, now
writes from northeastern Vermont.