By Scott Condon, The Aspen Times
ASPEN — Public oversight of the ski industry has become a casualty of the battle between Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co.
As the competition between the ski companies has heated up, the amount of information the U.S. Forest Service will share about ski areas’ use of public lands has diminished. The Forest Service administers permits and oversees ski resorts that use public lands for their operations.
For several years, the agency publicly disclosed permit fees paid by individual ski areas, such as the 11 in the White River National Forest, which includes Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties. The Aspen Times has previously reported, for example, that Snowmass paid $1.62 million for use of public lands in winter 2015-16 and Vail Mountain paid $6.39 million.
But the Forest Service unceremoniously reversed its policy on release of the permit fees paid by individual resorts after Vail Resorts objected in December 2017, according to information The Aspen Times obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Now, the Forest Service will only share aggregated permit fee information for the ski areas in the White River National Forest. No individual permit fees are being shared on a forest, state, region or national level.
Chris Jarnot, executive vice president of the mountain division for Vail Resorts, claimed disclosing the permit fee its four Colorado ski areas paid to the federal government would compromise its competitive position.
“Vail Resorts is in actual competition with other ski areas not only in the White River National Forest, but also throughout Colorado, nationwide and internationally,” Jarnot wrote. “The ski industry is highly competitive, now more than ever with the recent consolidation.”
Vail’s permit fees must be confidential, Jarnot argued, “in part to prevent its sensitive financial and commercial information from being discovered by its competitors who are vying for the same skiers and guests within the same or similar markets.”
The Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region 2 office in Denver responded three months later that it would honor Vail Resorts’ request.
“I just wanted to follow up and let you know that we will only be releasing ski area fee information as aggregate data until we get further clarification,” Don Dressler, mountain resort program manager for the Rocky Mountain Region, said in an email to Jarnot in early 2018.
The National Ski Areas Association, a Denver-based trade association, pushed for a consistent nationwide policy to prevent disclosure of permit fees paid by individual resorts, according to information obtained by The Aspen Times.
Geraldine Link, NSAA’s public policy director, wrote to a national Forest Service official in May 2018. “Reg. 2 has taken the approach of not sharing individual resort fee info with the press,” Link wrote. “Instead, the aggregated fee amount is disclosed for the state.”
Other regional offices were apparently still sharing fees paid by individual resorts, according to Link.
“We really should have one consistent approach in my view,” Link said to the Forest Service. “Releasing an aggregated state total is appropriate, and NSAA would strongly encourage the agency to follow that approach across all regions in the future.”
Sean Wetterberg, winter sports program manager for the Forest Service, responded May 8, 2018, that the agency was “actively discussing” the topic.
“I have connected with our regions on this and am trying to connect with our FOIA office for advice,” he said. “One step in the process is for us to notify affected ski areas and ask them to respond to the FOIA exemption criteria before we make a determination on release of info. … Beyond going to all 122 ski areas and asking them each to respond individually there may be a possibility that NSAA on behalf of the industry could speak to this.”
Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, confirmed there is an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act that lets individuals and companies object to the release of information that they feel qualifies as trade secrets and confidential financial information. What makes the ski area permit fees case unusual is the information was released for several years, then suddenly stopped, Roberts said.
The Aspen Times was able to obtain individual resort permit fee payments at least as far back as 2010.
“The public does surrender part of its watchdog ability when the industry asks for and receives this exemption,” Roberts said. “We don’t know quite as much as we did about how public lands are being used and how much revenue they generate.”
It appears the federal government is giving the ski industry leeway that it doesn’t give to other industries. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, provides information on royalties paid from specific oil and gas leases as well as royalties paid by oil and gas companies that lease public lands.
Wetterberg and Dressler of the Forest Service didn’t respond to emails or phone calls from The Aspen Times to discuss how the issue was resolved.
It cannot be determined at this time if the agency adopted a formal policy. It also couldn’t be determined if Forest Service attorneys verified the claims by Vail Resorts or if the agency simply capitulated to the wishes of a ski industry heavyweight.
Vail Resorts declined further comment on the issue. NSAA said in a statement, “The amount of permit fees that individual resorts operating on Forest Service land pay to the U.S. Treasury is confidential commercial and financial information and thereby exempt from FOIA requests. That exemption from FOIA applies to all 122 ski areas that operate on Forest Service lands across the country.”
The Aspen Times notified the office of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet about the Forest Service’s change of policy on disclosure of ski area permit fees. A spokesperson said the staff is discussing the issue and would possibly address it at a later time.