New bill would allow eight local ski areas to expand operations to a wide range of year-round activities

By:  Mark Yuasa, The Seattle Times
U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) helped pass out of committee bipartisan legislation a bill that would help ski area communities attract recreational visitors year-round, which would support local economies and help create year-round jobs in these communities.

Eight ski areas on federal lands within Washington would benefit from this legislation, which allows ski areas located in National Forests -- including 49 Degrees North (Chewelah), Crystal Mountain (Pierce County), Mt. Baker (Bellingham), Mission Ridge (Wenatchee), Stevens Pass (Everett), Snoqualmie Pass (King County), White Pass (Lewis County), and Ski Bluewood (Walla Walla) -- to undertake activities other than just winter skiing.

These summer activities could include mountain biking, expanded scenic opportunities, summit hiking, expanded hospitality opportunities such as restaurants, and summer events such as weddings.

"Enabling our ski areas to attract visitors year-round will help boost Washington state's tourism economy," Cantwell said in a news release. "This bipartisan bill will help ski area communities attract business during the summer offseason. I will continue to advocate for this bill and push for Senate passage so our ski area communities have expanded economic opportunities year-round."

Cantwell is a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act (S. 382), which she helped pass out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (ENR). The bill was introduced by Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) and is co-sponsored by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), John Barrasso (R-WY), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), James Risch (R-ID), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

The Ski bill would allow the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to provide more consistent and informed decisions across the country when it comes to recreational and tourism usage of ski areas within National Forests. It would amend the 1986 Ski Permit Act to authorize activities during the summer months and give the USFS oversight to determine, at any given ski area located within federal lands, which activities are appropriate.

"This bill is important to Stevens Pass and the State of Washington because of the positive impacts on economic development, providing more jobs through adding summer activities, as well as greater recreational opportunities on managed public lands," John A. Gifford, General Manager at Stevens Pass Mountain Resort said in the news release. "As our population grows, the demands for recreation will increase. Summer activities at ski areas keeps impacts in a controlled and mitigated setting and takes the burden off other areas of the national forest."

"The Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act will foster more outdoor recreational opportunities and job creation in northeast Washington," John Eminger, President of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association and owner of 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort, located about an hour north of Spokane said in the news release.

"Chewelah and the Colville area welcome visitors each winter to ski at 49 Degrees North. This bill will allow us to offer more summertime recreational activities, help introduce new visitors to outdoor experiences, hire more employees, and help diversify our rural economy. We appreciate Senator Cantwell's support for this bill and for growing our local economy."

The bill would provide clearer oversight guidance to the USFS that more accurately reflects today's use of modern ski areas. The current outdated statute only authorizes "alpine and nordic skiing " at these areas, but the USFS has since authorized a variety of summer activities at certain resorts, and its application of the statute has varied greatly from region to region. This inconsistency has left some resorts with the leeway to provide greater expansion while others struggle to make any headway on providing commercial activities during the summer months.