Speech

Ski Areas: An Enduring Partnership

Tom Tidwell, Chief
National Ski Area Association, Public Lands Committee
Scottsdale, AZ
— May 5, 2017

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

The Forest Service and the National Ski Area Association have a long and enduring partnership. For decades, we’ve come together to manage national forest land for the benefit and enjoyment of Americans through outdoor recreation. The Forest Service is deeply committed to connecting all Americans to the outdoors, and we depend on partners like you.

 

Value of Outdoor Recreation

The lands we manage, the national forests and grasslands, are a great value for the American people for all kinds of benefits and services—for outdoor recreation, for carbon sequestration, for timber and grazing, for clean air and clean water, for habitat for native fish and wildlife and so much more. These lands are part of a broader public trust unmatched anywhere in the world—roughly 635 million acres of federal land, about a third of our nation’s land area. These lands were placed in public trust largely thanks to visionaries like President Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and others who founded America’s conservation movement.

That public trust carries responsibility. It also brings opportunities to work with partners like you to make investments in the land. Nowhere is the value of those investments more clear than when it comes to outdoor recreation. The Forest Service’s National Visitor Use Monitoring showed about 147 million recreational visits in 2015, with another 300 million visits to 138 scenic byways and other travel routes near the National Forest System.

In fact, recreation accounts for the greatest use of these lands, and it also accounts for the greatest contribution to the U.S. economy. As visitor spending ripples through the U.S. economy, it adds roughly $10.3 billion to the gross domestic product. It also sustains about 143,000 full- and part-time jobs, mostly in gateway and rural communities. That $10.3-billion return dwarfs the $2 billion it costs each year to manage the National Forest System, including outlays for roads and facilities. Outdoor recreation is a great economic investment.

As you may know, the Outdoor Industry Association just released its latest report on the national recreation economy. In 2016, outdoor recreation generated $887 billion in annual consumer spending. It generated 7.6 million jobs. And it yielded $125 billion in federal and state tax revenue. Outdoor recreation plays a huge role in the economic health of our nation.

Outdoor recreation also represents an investment in the health and well-being of our citizens, including our children. About 59 percent of our visitors to the national forests and grasslands come for some kind of physical activity, such as hiking and skiing. Physical activity accounts for about 87 million visits per year. America spends trillions of dollars annually on crisis medical health care that is often associated with overweight, obesity, and physical inactivity. By investing in outdoor recreation on the national forests and grasslands, we are lowering the nation’s long-term health care costs.

We are also building knowledge. Every visit to a national forest or grassland is a learning opportunity associated with fun. That’s especially true for children, who account for one in six visits, or about 25 million kids per year. Children learn a lot while doing things in the woods; often, they learn about the woods themselves. They learn how ecosystems work, for example; they see the effects of disturbances, such as wildfires and beetle outbreaks. Outdoor recreation can help teach environmental literacy. Recreation is a portal for understanding and caring about natural resources and public lands.

 

Value of Ski Areas

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. Downhill skiing and snowboarding is the second most popular primary use of the national forests—after hiking. About 16 percent of our visitors come for downhill skiing and snowboarding. We get about 23 million skier visits per year, roughly half of all skier visits nationwide.

All those visitors generate tremendous economic benefits. Ski areas on the National Forest System support about 64,000 full- and part-time jobs. Revenue to the federal Treasury from ski areas has been going up; in 2016, it reached the highest levels ever, more than $45 million. That’s more revenue than from any other activity on the National Forest System—more than timber and all other recreation special uses combined. More importantly, these same ski areas contribute to the national economy. They alone contribute about $2.7 billion annually to the gross domestic product, or about a quarter of the total contribution of the National Forest System.

So it’s pretty obvious that the ski industry contributes tremendous value to the American people. Your activities account for a big part of the way we serve the American people, and the Forest Service is important in turn to the national ski industry.

 

Taking Home Memories

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—or first learning how to ski. Often, ski resorts create the first or the main memories people have of their public lands. People will always remember particular ski trips and ski slopes. People come to the national forests 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 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.

 

Opportunities Ahead

And that gives us new opportunities to work together in the years ahead. The Forest Service is working with ski areas to go beyond snow. Through year-round recreation, we can give the people we serve more recreational choices while also creating additional jobs. We can expand our pool of visitors by offering new kinds of recreation activities in all four seasons. 

Already, some resorts are paving the way. Vail Mountain in Colorado and Heavenly Mountain in California are among the first to offer four-season activities. They are unveiling a variety of programs and activities to connect people to summer outdoor experiences. These new activities include tree canopy tours, aerial adventure courses, alpine coasters, 4-by-4 tours, and zip lines.

Expanded opportunities will bring more visitors to the national forests and grasslands and more opportunities for gateway communities. We estimate that four-season recreation at ski areas will raise our number of summer visits to the national forests by 600,000. We also estimate almost $32 million in additional direct spending in neighboring communities—spending on things like lodging, food, and gas. As the spending ripples through the economy, it could sustain as many as 500 additional jobs.

As you know, we also have opportunities to work together for the health of the land. 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.

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. 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 rising levels of stresses and disturbances in the decades to come.

The ski areas have been a big part of that. We thank you for your support in the past, and we welcome new ideas for working together in the future. We have opportunities to work together on forest health projects that protect ski area facilities and nearby communities from the risk of fire and that minimize the effects of insect attack. We are working together on changes related to ski area fee retention, which could help fund future forest health treatments for our mutual benefit.

 

Value of Partnership

Before closing, I want to stress the value of our partnership with the ski industry. Our ongoing MOU gives us a sound basis for working together to reach our mutual goals. We share a belief in the value of developed outdoor recreation … in physical fitness for the people we serve … in public/private partnerships … in multiple-use management and sustainable communities … in viable local economies and ecosystem health. The values we share are the basis for our partnership—for working together to create recreational settings for people to use and enjoy.

Our partnership gives us the means to connect Americans to the outdoors, and we are committed to doing whatever we can to strengthen it. For example, we have been modernizing our special uses program to create a more predictable business environment and a more efficient workforce.  Specifically, we are working on simplifying our processes, in part through ePermitting. We are also looking at the use of “strike teams” to better handle our special uses workload and backlog. 

In closing, a word of thanks to Michael Berry. I want to thank Michael specifically for his role in our partnership over so many years. The National Ski Areas Association is a critical voice for the industry, and under his leadership the NSAA has always done its best to ensure that the Forest Service understands your industry’s needs and perspectives. 

Michael, I would also like to thank you for your service on the board of the National Forest Foundation. As you know, the NFF is the Forest Service’s official nonprofit partner, and you made key contributions to the board, helping us better do our work.  

Michael, I congratulate you on your retirement and your recent induction into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. Well deserved!