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Moving Forward With Our Ski Area Partners

Tom Tidwell, Chief
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University
San Antonio, TX
May 7, 2012 at 12:00pm

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me. I’ve been in the Forest Service for over 30 years now, and I’ve met many times before with folks from ski areas. But this is the first time in Texas.

The Forest Service and the National Ski Area Association have a long and enduring partnership. Throughout the years, we’ve come together to manage national forest land for the benefit and enjoyment of Americans through outdoor recreation. The MOU we are renewing reconfirms our partnership.

I want to start by giving you a broad idea of our current approach to national forest management. Then I’ll turn to what we might do to work together better to meet the needs of the people we serve at ski areas.

Restoration Challenges

Our obligation as an agency is to maintain and restore healthy, resilient ecosystems that can deliver a full range of goods, values, and services from the nation’s forests and grasslands. Many of these lands are healthy, but many are not.

One challenge is climate change. Ski areas have a huge stake in this issue for obvious reasons, and I commend you for the leadership you’ve shown in reducing energy consumption through your Sustainable Slopes program and the 2012 Climate Challenge initiative. The Forest Service is also doing things to reduce our environmental footprint as an organization. In March, for example, we directed our units to increase the use of domestically harvested wood in all new Forest Service buildings and facilities. As you know, wood is a renewable resource, and it has half the energy intensity and half the carbon intensity of building materials like concrete or steel.

We have also developed a National Roadmap for Responding to Climate Change. Many forests are unhealthy because they are overgrown and overly homogeneous. That makes them more susceptible to catastrophic fires and outbreaks of insects and disease, especially in an era of climate change. A top priority for the Forest Service is to open up overgrown forests and increase landscape diversity. We are working to restore healthy, resilient forest ecosystems that can resist the stresses and disturbances associated with a changing climate. Accordingly, we have been picking up the pace of restoration. Last year, we completed restoration treatments on 3.7 million acres, and this year we expect to treat 4 million acres.

The ski areas have been part of that. For example, the National Forest Foundation has been partnering with ski resorts in six western states through the Ski Conservation Fund. Under the agreement, the foundation asks resort guests for a voluntary $1 donation. The fund’s priorities center on recreation, wildlife habitat enhancement, watershed health, and community forestry, all of which dovetail with restoring healthy, resilient forests. The fund has been well received by guests, raising more than $1.2 million from 2006 to 2010. I’d like to thank those involved for your support, and I encourage those of you who are not part of the program to take a look at joining forces with the National Forest Foundation.

Recreation Challenge: Making Memories

So our focus today is on ecological restoration—restoring forest and grassland ecosystems that can deliver all the benefits that Americans want and need. What Americans want from the national forests has changed in the last 30 or 40 years. The main way that Americans now use their national forests and grasslands is for outdoor recreation, and skiing is by far the most popular winter use.

There are 122 ski areas on the national forests, and they provide about 60 percent of the total capacity for downhill skiing in the United States. This is a tremendous resource for the American people, not least because it contributes to rural economies. In 2009, for example, visitor spending on the National Forest System plus the associated ripple effects contributed $14.5 billion to our national GDP. Last year, the national forests and grasslands supported 237,800 recreation-related jobs across the United States. Downhill skiing is the second most popular primary use of the national forests—after hiking; in 2009, skiers alone accounted for $4.5 billion in direct spending associated with national forest visitor use. So let’s be clear about the obvious: The ski industry is a big part of what the Forest Service does, and the Forest Service is important to the ski industry.

Whatever we do, we’ve got to make sure that our visitors get what they come for so they keep coming back. In my view, what brings people out into the woods and makes them want to come back are the memories. Most people will always remember catching their first fish or seeing their first bear. They’ll always remember particular ski trips and ski slopes. People come for memories like these.

Our job, as I see it, is to make sure that people take home the memories they come for. That includes furnishing the services they need—the roads, the slopes, the facilities, and everything else. It also includes furnishing reasonable access to all kinds of opportunities for outdoor adventure, and that includes newer sports popular with younger generations. It should include using the infrastructure of ski areas to help meet recreational demand year-round.

But above all, it means protecting the air and water, the habitat for wildlife, the splendid scenery, and the naturalness of the landscape. When people get what they come for … when they take home good memories … part of what they remember are the outdoor settings, including the naturalness of the ski areas on national forest land. They will cherish those settings and want to protect them. On some level, at least, they will come to support conservation.

So, as I see it, our restoration job … our conservation job … is directly connected to our job of delivering opportunities for outdoor recreation. Both the Forest Service and the NSAA are in the people and visitor experience business.

Recreation Issues

We expect recreational activities on national forest land to continue to grow, if only because our population is growing. Currently, our population stands at about 300 million, and we’re getting about 170 million site visits per year. By 2060, we expect a population of at least 400 million Americans. Does that mean we’ll be getting more than 210 million site visits in 50 years? How sustainable is that? And what does it mean for ski areas—will we also be getting 25 percent more users than today? These are questions we need to start thinking about.

Another question has to do with the kinds of recreation we’ll be seeing in the future. It used to be that when people thought of outdoor recreation, it was mostly hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, skiing, and maybe horseback riding. And that was most of what we got on national forest land.

But not anymore. Now we get all kinds of recreation, ranging from fairly light activities like birdwatching to strenuous sports like mountain biking. A lot of it involves motors, like OHVs or snowmobiles … or gadgets, like global positioning systems or all the paraphernalia you need for caving, kayaking, hang-gliding, or rock climbing.

Ski areas have a long history of attracting new users to the mountains and teaching them to enjoy outdoor activities in a safe and responsible manner. That experience and knowhow should translate to year-round activities. Alpine resorts can serve outdoor recreation across a whole ranger district, saving us the need to build costly recreational infrastructure. In that connection, President Obama signed the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011, which allows for year-round use of ski areas located on national forest land. That would mean more people employed and more revenue coming in to communities at a time when both are sorely needed.

The lesson is clear: We have to be ready to respond to what our visitors want, giving them opportunities for new forms of outdoor recreation. But it’s also clear that we have to do so within the limits of the land. We don’t want to deliver an amusement park kind of experience. Those natural settings … the naturalness of our ski areas … that’s the key to making the kinds of memories we want our visitors to take away. That’s ultimately what will bring them back.

Basis for Partnership

Another lesson from all this is that the Forest Service can’t do it alone. Of course, we’ve known that for a long, long time. We’ve always depended on partnerships, going back to Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief. Pinchot made it very clear to his employees that he expected them to work closely with local communities to help them meet their needs.

That’s particularly true today. Today, we live in a network-centered world where no one has a corner on information, knowledge, or talent. We have to recognize that in the way we work—in the way we deliver values and fulfill our mission. In business as well as in government and community service, the most efficient and cost-effective way to deliver values is through strategic partnerships—by sharing and leveraging resources.

In fact, we’re using partnerships to meet the restoration challenges I mentioned. We could never do it alone; we simply don’t have the resources. That’s especially true for outdoor recreation, particularly at ski areas and other developed sites. We value the relationship we have with you, and we are looking forward to continuing our partnership for many years to come.

I want our folks in the field to know that we have got to be thinking long-term about this. That means improving our business relationships, our business savvy, and our ability to look at issues from a business perspective. As an organization, we’ve got to simplify our processes to make it easier for our partners to work with us. We’re committed to doing that, and I think we’ve made some progress in recent years.

A few weeks ago, Michael Berry and Geraldine Link came to my office to talk about our partnership and its long-term value. We agreed that it was strong … and we committed ourselves to keeping it that way by forming a partnership work group for good channels of communication.

Opportunities

With that said, I think there might be some good opportunities for working together to improve our service to the American people.

First—there’s the restoration challenge of dealing with such challenges as fire and fuels or bark beetle epidemics. I want to commend the ski industry for taking the lead in this regard. Ski areas have been great about partnering with us to restore ecosystems … to undertake forest health treatments at ski areas … to protect wildlife habitat and waterways … to apply best management practices to the land. I want you to know how much we value that.

Second—as we begin to think through what we can do on the nation’s forest land to increase carbon storage capacity, there might be opportunities to work together on and around ski areas. As I mentioned, the ski industry has been a leader in addressing problems related to climate change … in reducing energy consumption … in recycling products and utilizing renewable energy sources. I commend you for your vision and insight on this issue, and I know we’re interested in any ideas you might have.

Third—there might be opportunities to work together at ski areas to help broaden the circle of conservation. Maybe we can connect more directly with visitors, or maybe we can work together to bring people to ski areas who might not normally get out to a national forest in either winter or summer, building on the “summer use” legislation. Again, we’re interested in your ideas and observations.

Fourth—as I mentioned, changing demographics are bringing new demands, and some ski areas understandably want to create new facilities and offer new recreation opportunities. We need to sit down together to weigh the pros and cons on a case-by-case basis. What are the best opportunities to accommodate a new set of recreational users within the limits of the land? I want you to know that we are open to dialogue. How can we work together to better serve our visitors in a way that ensures your viability as a business?

Partnership Is Key

In closing, our job—as I see it—is to make sure that people take home good recreational memories from the national forests. Above all, that means protecting the air and water, the habitat for wildlife, the splendid scenery, and the naturalness of the landscape, because that’s what visitors come for.

I think we have worked well together in the past to meet the challenges we face, and I am confident that we will continue to do so in the future. The bottom line is this: In the future, the Forest Service is going to have to rely more than ever on our partners. You will play a very important role in the future of outdoor recreation, and we value your expertise. We know that our ski areas need to make a living from public land. We want your business to be viable, and we welcome your ideas and suggestions. For the sake of the land we care for and the people we serve, we want our partnership to stay strong.

Thank you.

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