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U.S. Forest Service Seeks Public Comment on a Proposed Rule Addressing Ski Area Water Rights on Forest Service Lands

WASHINGTON
June 18, 2014 at 2:15pm

The U.S. Forest Service is seeking public comment on a proposal addressing water provided for ski areas on national forest lands through the permitting process. The proposal would help to ensure public winter recreation opportunities on Forest Service lands are available in the long term.

UPDATE: The notice is now public on the Federal Register.

"This proposal balances the interests of the public, the ski areas and our natural resources by ensuring the necessary water is provided for winter recreation through our special-use permit process," said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. "This proposed change will provide assurances to the public that they will continue to enjoy winter recreation at ski areas on national forests."

Ski areas, which cover some 180,000 acres of national forest lands, average 23 million visits annually. Those visits contribute $3 billion every winter in direct spending to local economies and create approximately 80,000 full and part-time and seasonal jobs in rural communities.

The 122 ski areas operating on Forest Service-managed lands do so with special-use permits with a 40-year term. As permits end their term, the agency proposes an update that would provide assurances that sufficient water rights remain with the ski area permit for snowmaking and other essential operations even if the ski resort is sold, but without requiring ski areas to transfer water rights to the Forest Service. Currently, the policy requires the public hold the rights to that water. The proposed change would allow water rights to be in the name of the Special Use term permit holder (in this case, the ski area), with the commitment that adequate water stay dedicated to the ski area operation. The proposed change is based on public comments and discussion from a series of meetings conducted by the Forest Service in 2013.

The Federal Register Notice for the proposal will be available for public inspection on Friday June 20, 2014. The public will have 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register to comment on the proposal.

"We hosted eight public listening sessions to receive feedback on this issue, and incorporated many ideas to find a good solution for everyone," said Jim Peña, associate deputy chief of the agency's National Forest System. "We look forward to continued work with the public as we move forward to ensure we are protecting their natural resources."

The agency's congressionally mandated, multiple-use objectives focus on range, watershed, timber, fish and wildlife and outdoor recreation. Since the 1980s, agency policy has addressed water rights in ski areas, which has worked well for the public. In the future, more ski areas will need to rely on water for snowmaking, as well as water supplies for base and lodging facilities. The agency's 40-year permits, almost always renewed with the current holders, will ensure the public has the necessary assurances that ski areas will continue to operate to justify this long-term commitment of the public's land to skiing.

"Chair lifts can be replaced and lodges can be rebuilt, but once the water necessary for ski area operations is no longer available, the public loses opportunities for winter recreation," said Tidwell. "The economic effects of the loss of water may be far reaching. This issue has implications far beyond the boundaries of ski areas."

The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation's clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency also has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live.

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