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Skiers take some final laps during night skiing Saturday, March 14, 2020, at Steamboat Resort in Steamboat Springs. The resort's parent company Alterra Mountain Co. announced just hours earlier that they would close for a week starting March 15. The announcement came about 30 minutes after Vail Resorts announced they would also be closing its ski areas. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado ski areas operating on public land saw revenue decline 20% in the pandemic-clipped 2019-20 ski season. And that decline, the largest in at least 20 years and likely since the creation of the Parks and Lands Management Act in 1996, led to a rare drop in rent ski areas pay their federal landlords.

The 23 ski areas sent the U.S. Treasury $24 million in revenue-based rent for the 2019-20 ski season, which is the Forest Service’s fiscal year 2020. That’s down from a record $30.1 million in 2018-19 and the lowest since the 2013-14 season. 

With the growth of season pass sales eclipsing day-ticket sales, revenue-based fee payments paid by ski areas to their federal landlords has risen steadily. Since the 2008-09 ski season, the year Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass debuted, revenues have increased every year. 

The larger ski areas endured the steepest declines in revenue during the 2019-20 ski season, which was cut short when resorts closed in the middle of an always busy March to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Spending at resorts in the White River National Forest — the most trafficked in the U.S. with several of the busiest ski hills in the nation, including Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Beaver Creek, Snowmass and Copper Mountain — fell 26%, based on the revenue-based rent reports. The 11 ski areas in the White River forest paid $16.7 million in rent, down from $22.7 million in 2018-19.

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

(The Forest Service for decades reported rent payments paid by individual ski areas, but in 2018 but started providing only regional totals after Vail Resorts argued the reports revealed too much about its financial performance.) 

The nation’s 460 ski resorts in 37 states last year reported losing $2 billion from the early closure of ski lifts in March 2020. The month of April is the second highest-month for ski area revenue, behind December. (Rent payments to the federal government are based on gross revenues.) Resorts reported losses that included wasted food in resort coolers, employee housing costs, canceled events, subsidies paid to airlines for rural air service and declines in summer activity.

Vail Resorts, which owns five ski areas in Colorado, including four in the White River National Forest that pay more than three-quarters of the rent payments collected in the forest, reported a $203 million decline in resort earnings for its fiscal 2020. (We know the percentage Vail Resorts pays in the White River from seasonal reports collected by The Colorado Sun dating back to 2002 that show the company’s four busy ski areas in the forest paying, for example, $15.5 million in 2015-2016, when the White River collected a total of $19.9 million.)

Since all resort payments are sent directly to the U.S. Treasury, the nine national forests and Bureau of Land Management district that host ski areas in Colorado did not have any individual impacts to their bottom lines from the pandemic decline in ski area revenues. But local land managers sending all their ski area rent to Washington could change with the Ski Hills Resources for Economic Development Act — or SHRED Act — which would allow forests to retain 60% to 75% ski area fees collected inside their boundaries.

Outdoors Reporter Eagle, CO Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting thingsNewsletter: The Outsider, the outdoors...