News
July 1, 1996

Caution! Forest Plan Revisions Ahead

Ski Area Management,

A timely reminder that the mandated revisions of land-use plans by the Forest Service require close involvement by ski area permittees.

Memo to the 137 ski areas operating on national forest system land: The next round of forest plan revisions is getting underway and will be critical.

For those who go to sleep during this planning process, beware of what you find when you awake. The results could range from restrictions on future expansions to costly and intrusive new mitigation requirements to the retroactive application of new environmental standards. No longer can this process be ignored as just another eye-glazing planning exercise.

The key question is not whether but how you should participate and the extent to which you will be able to protect your interests. During past planning efforts, the ski industry has often sat on the sidelines. While this may have had little consequence in the past, future neglect could spell considerable trouble for individual areas and the industry.

A Primer on Forest Plans

In 1976, Congress passed the National Forest Management Act, which requires the Forest Service to prepare and periodically revise comprehensive land-use plans for each of its forests and to ensure that, subject to valid existing rights, all permits for using forest land are consistent with these plans. These planning efforts usually receive extensive agency and public input and are accompanied by an environmental impact statement ("EIS").

 

Each plan divides the forest into different management areas, each with its own multiple-use management emphasis, such as downhill skiing, primitive recreation, wildlife and wilderness. The plan also includes various goals, objectives, standards and guidelines that detail how the forest is to be managed. Some apply forest-wide, others to specific management or geographic areas; some are mandatory, while others are merely advisory or aspirational.

 

In the past, standards and guidelines were sometimes treated as flexible planning tools. This is now changing as the Forest Service, other government agencies and the public focus on the literal wording of the plan. As a result, standards and guidelines are coming to be treated more as regulations -- that is, mandatory and binding requirements.

 

Since forest plans are required to be revised every 10 to 15 years, many national forests with ski resorts are scheduled to revise their plans in the next few years (see box). Given the potential for these revisions to affect existing facilities and expansion opportunities, individual ski areas and their associations should take these revisions seriously.

 

The Big Issues

 

Each ski area will face at least five central issues during the revisions process:

1) Land Allocations -- What lands adjacent to existing ski area boundaries should be designed for downhill skiing? Ski areas must consider future expansions, master development plan updates and permit boundary revisions, and ensure that the areas needed are properly designated in the forest plan. They must understand and be able to explain how these areas will help to satisfy the goals and objectives for the forest. Failure to do so could complicate and delay future development projects.

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SCHEDULED REVISIONS
 
By 2000, most of the forests containing ski areas will begin revising their forest plans. The following list identifies several of these ski areas and the date by which the revision process is scheduled to begin.
 
California
Arrowhead 1999
Heavenly Ski Area 1998
North Star at Tahoe 2000
Squaw Valley 2000
 
Colorado
Aspen 1997
Keystone 1997
Loveland 1996
Winter Park 1996
Vail 1997
 
Idaho
Sun Valley 1998
 
Montana
Big Mountain 1998
Red Lodge Mountain 2000
 
Utah
Alta 1997
Park City 1997
 
Wyoming
Grand Targhee 1996
 
Few ski areas have brainstormed how future technological innovations and changes in user preferences will affect these determinations. For example, will fat skis, parabolic skis, snowboards and mountain bikes create a need for additional terrain? Is there a need to include new or different acreage in special-use boundaries for evolving preferences?
 
Recently, Sonny LaSalle, forest supervisor for the White River National Forest, urged Colorado ski executives to investigate this issue. The overriding question: how the resort industry and Forest Service can explain and quantify these evolving needs so as to justify expanded terrain.

2) Goals, Standards and Guidelines -- What goals, objectives, standards, and guidelines should be included in the revised forest plan to govern ski area development and operation? Are all of the forest-wide standards and guidelines appropriate for this purpose? How about the standards and guidelines specified for downhill skiing? Are the standards and guidelines sufficiently detailed to avoid later misunderstandings or conflicts? Every ski areas should carefully examine the proposed standards and guidelines that would apply to its operations (see box), playing particular attention to the issues of biodiversity, wildlife habitat, fishery management, timber management, water and air quality and visual resources. Concerns must be channeled to the Forest Service during the review process.
3) Retroactivity of Standards and Guidelines -- Several recently proposed forest plan revisions contain language that could be applied retroactively to existing operations (see box). This could conceivably require ski areas to revamp existing programs at great cost and disruption. Every ski area will wish to carefully scrutinize whether retroactive applications are required and, if so, to what extent the proposed revisions should be questioned or challenged.
4) Application of Forest Plans to Nearby Nonskiable Areas -- Increasingly, activities on nearby federal lands not suitable for downhill skiing will have a bearing on what ski areas can do within their own permit boundaries. More and more, environmental carrying capacities are being applied to projects.

 
For example, the more adjacent land that is set aside for wildlife habitat, the more likely a ski area can demonstrate that wildlife within its permit boundary will have alternative habitat to use. This may require ski areas to fight actively for such wildlife prescriptions outside of their boundaries.

Similarly, a poorly planned mining or timbering project located nearby could adversely affect air quality parameters within an airshed or water quality parameters within a watershed, effectively precluding a ski area from expanding or else dramatically increasing the cost of its mitigation. Again, the ski area may need to be involved in planning for such uses or impacts through the forest plans.

5) Benefiting from the Forest Plan Environmental Review Process -- As mentioned earlier, forest plan revisions are generally accompanied by an EIS. Because of the general or "programmatic" nature of most forest plans, the Forest Service has tended to prepare equally broad or programmatic NEPA documentation. This may not always provide a sufficiently detailed analysis to expedite or simplify the subsequent preparation of a project-specific EIS or EA.

 
A more intensive environmental review during the forest plan revisions could provide greater detail on various environmental issues that are relevant to ski development, such as: the habitat needs of wildlife, including threatened and endangered species; the evolving transportation requirements for the corridor or region; or water quality issues associated with a larger stream segment. This, in turn, could help reduce the NEPA requirements for subsequent ski area projects.
 
"We've got to simplify the process," forest supervisor LaSalle says. "We should answer questions only once. The Forest Plan and its environmental reviews should be able to help." This so-called "tiering," i.e., going from a generalized EIS to a more specific EIS or EA, is encouraged by the Council on Environmental Quality and could save ski areas enormous amounts of time, energy and dollars.
 
A Proactive Response
 
Every ski area operating on national forest system land should consider the following proactive steps to ensure that its interests are protected during the impending planning process:
 
Be at the Table
Revision of the forest plan is a public process, it may be tedious and long, but your participation will ensure that your concerns and ideas are considered. Don't wait until the last minute when a final EIS and Record of Decision is imminent.
 
Carefully Plan and Articulate Your Future Needs
 
Be prepared to identify and explain your future needs. Make sure that the land allocation process incorporates these needs. Think expansively about changes in user preference and technological advancements. Think summer, fall and spring -- not just winter, and examine the larger picture, including nearby land uses.
 
Understand the Legal and Regulatory Aspects
 
Be aware of the myriad legal and regulatory aspects of forest plans. Understand how goals, objectives, standards and guidelines will be used -- and your appeal rights if you are unhappy with the plan.
 
Be Creative and Comprehensive
 
Ensure that the forest plan and accompanying EIS work to your advantage. A creative and comprehensive product may make your life easier in the long run.
 
Proposed Standards
 
The following standards have been proposed in the revisions to the Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest Plan:
 
1) Maintain, and restore where necessary, the compositional, structural and functional elements which will perpetuate [biological] diversity.
 
2) Maintain sufficient instream flows and perennial stream reaches to sustain long-term stream health. In addition, as allowed by law, restore flows on dewatered perennial streams to supply habitat for balanced populations or aquatic species throughout the stream.
 
3) Manage forest cover so that streamflows are not changed to the extent that long-term stream health is degraded.
 
These standards are examples of broadly worded, retroactive forest-wide directions. They are subject to competing interpretations and do not explain how and when they will apply to existing facilities.

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