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Aspen Skiing Co. can charge skiers an uphill access fee, Forest Service rules in decision that could have ripple effects

Resort operators are not allowed to charge an entrance fee simply for access to the national forest, which are public lands. However, they are allowed to charge a fee for services.

Uphill skiers at Aspen Snowmass' Buttermilk Mountain. (Anna Stonehouse, The Aspen Times)

By Scott Condon, The Aspen Times

Aspen Skiing Co. acted within its rights as a special use permit holder on national forest to implement a new fee for uphillers, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Roger Poirier, recreation staff officer for the White River National Forest, said ski area operators are required to file an annual operating plan. Skico’s plan for 2021-22 proposed the uphill pass fee of $69. It was reviewed and approved by the White River staff.

Resort operators are not allowed to charge an entrance fee simply for access to the national forest, which are public lands, Poirier said. However, they are allowed to charge a fee for services, he said.

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People skinning, snowshoeing or hiking uphill during winters have access to parking, bathrooms, groomed slopes, avalanche control and ski patrol aid. “That’s just naming a few,” Poirier said.

He said the explosion in popularity of uphilling in recent years shows the services are in demand.

“There’s a reason people are going to Ajax to ski rather than the backcountry,” Poirier said.

Skico announced on Monday it would start charging for an uphill pass for the first time in its 75 seasons. Uphillers will have to display a picture pass in an armband worn on a sleeve. They are subject to spot checks for compliance by ski patrol and mountain operations personnel.

Some observers have alleged in comments on Facebook that the uphill fee is illegal because Skico doesn’t own the national forest. Poirier said he received a handful of inquiries and complaints about the policy after Skico’s announcement.

“People love their public lands here,” he said.

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Poirier said he pointed out to people who contacted him that Skico can charge the fee and explained why.

Aspen Snowmass is at least the fourth resort in the White River National Forest to implement an uphill fee. Sunlight Mountain Resort charged $50 for a season pass and $10 for a single visit in 2020-21. Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin charged $59 last season for an uphill access pass. All three ski areas provided the uphill pass for free to people who purchased a season pass. Aspen Skiing Co. will also provide its uphill pass for free to people who purchase its Premier Pass.

“Uphill passes are kind of a new product,” Poirier said.

Uphillers who don’t like the pay-to-play policy can opt not to pay the fee and skin up slopes outside the ski area, he noted, but they won’t have services such as avalanche control or groomed slopes.

The 11 ski areas in the White River National Forest account for less than 2% of the 2.3 million acres in the White River National Forest.

“There’s tons of free places to go,” Poirier said.

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However, he believes the uphill fee could result in more rather than fewer people participating in the activity. It will build awareness about the activity and “cement” its status as an option, Poirier said. Some resorts are getting into guiding people uphill or partnering with firms that provide the service.

The Forest Service views the embrace of uphilling by some resorts as another way to satisfy the public’s demands for activities.

Ski areas pay a fee for using public lands in their operations. The White River National Forest used to disclose the fee amount on a resort-by-resort basis. Now it just reports the lump sum after Vail Resorts complained about disclosure of individual payments.

For the federal government’s fiscal year 2017, the 11 ski resorts in the White River cumulatively paid $20.18 million in fees to the Forest Service. That included $105,917 for Aspen Mountain; $441,049 for Aspen Highlands; $1,624,731 for Snowmass; and $267,380 for Buttermilk.

Aspen Mountain has a high percentage of private land within the ski area boundary.


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