After spending a day of mountain biking on the Colorado Trail this summer, I stopped near my car to watch the tourist season circus at Copper Mountain’s base area. The crowd milled around a bungee-and-trampoline contraption, a mini golf course and a concert stage that blared mediocre funk music. Signs along the trail pointed “mountain bikes and Digglers” to the bottom. But there were none in sight, leaving me to wonder: “What the heck is a Diggler?”
It was clear that I had just rolled out of the national forest and into the off-season gimmicks of a ski resort responding to changing times. Ski areas are facing what their industry group calls “unfavorable demographic trends” – namely loyal baby boomers aging out of the sport. And equally daunting is the squeeze climate change puts on the already-capricious snow season. For example, between 2000 and 2010 skier visits in Colorado were down seven percent during low snowfall years, compared to high snowfall years, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Many resorts are coping by bolstering business with year-round recreation. Since 122 ski areas operate on Forest Service land, the agency is proposing new guidelines so resorts can provide nature-based fun in the off-season, without further developing public land into a Disney-fied high-alpine amusement park.
The trend towards year-round recreation at ski areas isn’t new, especially when it comes to trail-based activities like mountain biking. But the law that permits ski areas on Forest Service land, the 1986 National Forest Ski Area Permit Act, was specific to Nordic and alpine skiing.
The Act didn’t even mention snowboarding, and a strict reading of it could have restricted any off-season activities like mountain biking or concerts, according to Sean Wetterberg, the Forest Service’s National Winter Sports Program Manager. Digglers, which I eventually learned are mountain scooters, advertised as easier to master than bikes, were certainly not included. (Copper Mountain still only lets people ride them near their base area.) But of course the Forest Service has allowed snow-less ski area recreation in the past two decades. They just permitted it on a case-by-case basis.
To streamline Forest Service policies, keep up with the less snow-centric aspects of the ski industry, and give operators some certainty that their plans are going to be approved, Colorado Senator Mark Udall introduced a bill standardizing the kinds of non-skiing development that can happen on Forest Service land. The Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act passed an otherwise gridlocked Congress in 2011.
The Act gave the Forest Service authority to approve year round recreation in general, but the agency is now proposing specific guidelines for permitting those activities. The guidelines are focused on keeping recreation natural resources-based, where the existing landscape is a dominant part of the activity. So, for example, disc golf is okay under the guidelines, but traditional golf is not because it requires too much change to the natural vegetation and the landscape. Mountain biking, zip lines and ropes courses are in the clear as well. But tennis courts, water slides, and amusement parks are a no-go.
In addition to outlining those specifics, the new regulations have a number of criteria to determine if a ski area’s snow free recreation plans are in line with the nature-based values of public land. For example, the proposed activity can’t expand the approved footprint of the resort, and it must “encourage outdoor recreation and the enjoyment of nature,” while not requiring significant new infrastructure.
So what will Forest Service ski areas look like over time as these rules are applied to summer development? Given the grab bag of non-traditional activities resorts are using to bring in visitors and fill hotel beds in the off-season, it’s kind of hard to tell. But that’s part of the point of the new rules. “We’re going to be getting proposals from ski areas for all kinds of things that weren’t in the (2011) Act, and the criteria are the filter we’re going to run them through,” says Wetterberg.
The Forest Service is taking public comment on the guidance for year-round recreation, along with rules for advertising and user fees, until December 2.
Even as ski areas like Crested Butte acknowledge in their master plans that “the North American ski industry has entered a new stage in its development,” which includes offering a wider variety of year-round activities, the Forest Service still requires that snow sports remain the primary activity ski areas offer.
Though they don’t mention climate change, the very existence of the new rules is a reminder that it’s going to become difficult to focus on snow if it doesn’t fly, or when it melts away faster than usual.
Plus, for some of us, there’s no replacement for what nature provides for free. Before I peddled away from Copper’s base area that July afternoon, I also noticed a group of kids playing in a lingering snow pile. With ample frozen water to keep them busy, they could care less about putt-putt, trampolines, or Digglers.
Sarah Jane Keller is the editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @sjanekeller.