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 through.


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 gate.


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 filibuster.


Congratulating themselves, the guardians of the citadel weren't looking when agents of the ski resorts slipped through a crack in the walls.


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 review.


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."


The 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 renewals.


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 process.


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 there?


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 percent?"


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 renewal.


Sam Anderson, the director of government affairs for the National Ski Areas Association based in Lakewood, Colo., has a plausible reply.


"The permit (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.


The 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 and approved."


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 passes.


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.


Depending on 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.


There 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.


Would the 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."


But the 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 legislation.


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.


No, 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.


Besides, this 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. n





Jon Margolis, once a columnist and political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, now writes from northeastern Vermont.