FROM Squaw Valley, Calif., to Sugarbush, Vt., ski-resort owners and environmentalists are squaring off over the best use - and price - of federal slopes.
This mile-high controversy involves more than 100 of the nation's ski areas and could affect the pace of future ski-area development and possibly the price of lift tickets.
Most ski resorts operate on US Forest Service land, leased from the government by using a complex formula that weighs gross revenues against fixed assets.
Resort owners have long said that the current fee structure is at best confusing and at worst unfair. Consequently, the industry is asking Congress to overhaul the system.
"The current system has done nothing but cause controversy and lawsuits," says Sam Anderson of the National Ski Areas Association in Denver. "It's also an auditing nightmare."
The ski industry's fee legislation - backed by Alaska's Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) and Rep. Don Young (R) and scheduled to be heard in both chambers this month - would create a new fee structure that is based on revenues. This approach would be revenue-neutral for the Forest Service and the ski industry, Mr. Anderson says.
Ed Ryberg, coordinator for the Rocky Mountain region of the Forest Service, agrees that the current system is difficult. "If you look at the regulations and policy, it's not exactly crystal clear," he says. Still, the Forest Service isn't sold on the ski industry's proposal, and prefers a fee system based on land appraisal.
But environmentalists see the dispute as an opening to challenge the very premise of ski areas operating on federal public lands. They contend the ski industry has grown unchecked at the expense of wildlife and natural resources.
"We have scarce resources.... We don't need a ski area in every valley," says Tom Lustig, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation. "These developments tear up a lot of the environment unnecessarily."
Ski industry representatives say public lands, by definition, belong to everyone - including the nation's 54 million skiers.
"Skiing is a very legitimate use of public land," says Anderson of the ski association. "Out of 191 million acres of national forest land, 190,000 acres - just 1 percent - are dedicated to skiing."
The Forest Service, which earns $19 million in annual fees from ski areas, says it is "neutral" on downhill skiing.
But the Forest Service is required by Congress to earn fair-market return on land used for ski slopes, says Erik Martin, program manager for Colorado's White River National Forest. Forest officials say the ski industry's bill is questionable in this regard.
"Our concern is that [a revenue-based fee] falls into the same trap as the current system," says Dave Heerwagen, in the Forest Service's Washington office. "We're not sure that we're getting the correct amount for use of the land." The only way to ensure a fair-market return, he says, is with an appraised-land system.
The industry's so-called "ski bill" would have resorts pay a flat percentage of their gross revenue on lift-ticket sales, ski-school classes, and mountain restaurant receipts. Unlike the current system, revenue from resort businesses on private land - such as lodging, ski-rental shops, and restaurants - would be exempt.
"Right now I have to pay fees for revenue earned on private land, such as in our ski shop, when Christy Sports next door does not," says Harry Mosgrove, president of Copper Mountain Ski Area in Colorado. "Is that fair?"
Some believe so.
"That's not unreasonable," says Rocky Smith of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "Most of their revenue from the private land wouldn't exist if it weren't for the public land."
The Vail ski area in Colorado- the nation's largest - is now seeking approval for a 4,100-acre expansion. Mr. Lustig says this development would remove old-growth forest, disrupt elk migration, and adversely affect forest species including nocturnal lynx, boreal owl, and pine marten. "Vail's going to make a bundle off this," he says. "They should have to pay fees to the Department of Wildlife to help offset the damage to wildlife."