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.
White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams says “there’s a humbling feeling” when he reviewed a recently published economic analysis showing his forest as not just the most trafficked forest in the country but also an unrivaled economic engine.
The analysis of all 111 U.S. Forest Service properties shows the White River atop the list, supporting 22,230 jobs and stirring an economic impact of nearly $1.6 billion. The dozens of communities within the 131-year-old forest, which includes 11 ski hills, eight wilderness areas and four large reservoirs, lean heavily on the recreation offered in the White River forest’s 2.3 million acres.
Fitzwilliams also sees alarm bells in the soaring visitation and economic numbers. It’s time to direct more funding into the forest, he says, and build a new plan that weighs record traffic and economic contributions alongside the ecological capacity of a stressed forest.
“We can’t say ‘Let’s keep going and we want all the same stuff,’” he says. “We’ve reached the point where that is impossible. We can’t get to our desired future staying on the exact same path without taking some different steps.”
The agency’s triennial “Economic Contributions from National Forest and Grasslands” analysis of its 111 forest and grassland areas from 2019 shows recreation contributing 96% of the economic activity and visitors flowing from the White River National Forest. The study combines spending by visitors and forest-dependent employers with the economic impact of earnings, which accounts for more than $960 million in wages for workers connected to the forest.
A majority of those recreational visits (54%, or more than 6.6 million) are skiing at the 11 ski areas in the White River forest, which include the most trafficked resorts in the country. (The next closest forest area in terms of economic impact is the 155,000-acre Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, which has 14 lift-served ski areas and supports 15,870 jobs and creates an economic impact of $1.1 billion.)
Of those roughly 6.6 million skier visits, about 66%, or 4.4 million, are visits by skiers from communities outside the national forest. The rest — roughly 2.2 million — are visits by locals.
Visits for “other recreation,” which the study does not define but includes hiking, camping, cycling, motorized travel and other non-wildlife related activities, accounts for 45% of all recreation visits — roughly 5.5 million visits — with a larger percentage of locals (64%) making up those visits.
That’s a lot of locals using the forest pretty regularly. And it represents a shift seen across the Western Slope as local leaders grapple with how to adjust economies built by visitors to accommodate increasing numbers of residents who are contributing more than ever to their communities.
Forest Service officials are still compiling annual visitation numbers for 2021, but Fitzwilliams said he expects a record number, likely closer to 17 million, which would account for more than half of all visits to all 11 of Colorado’s national forests. That compares to about 15 million in 2020, 12.3 million in 2019 and about 10 million a decade ago.
Fitzwilliams typically steers clear of advocating for legislation or taking political positions, as most federal employees do. But this report has pushed him.
“This really brings home the need to get something like the SHRED Act passed,” he says. “We see all this economic activity and money flowing out of the forest but none is flowing back in. This forest, it’s a machine and it’s a producer for us. It’s really taking care of us and it’s really giving us a lot. Maybe it’s time to give back.”
The Ski Hills Resources for Economic Development Act — or SHRED Act — would allow forests to retain 60% to 75% of the ski area fees collected inside their boundaries. That would be a big deal for the White River National Forest, where the 11 ski areas leasing Forest Service land send revenue-based fees — call it rent — to the federal government each year. For the 2020-21 ski season, the ski areas — which include some of the busiest resorts in the country, like Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper Mountain, Snowmass and Beaver Creek — sent the federal treasury $19.2 million, up from $16.7 million in 2019-20 and down from $22.7 million in 2018-19.
So the SHRED Act would allow the White River National Forest to retain as much as $17 million in fees collected from its ski areas. The forest’s annual budget from the federal government — which does not include any of the rent collected from ski areas — is about $18 million, down from more than $30 million in the late 2000s. Fitzwilliams says the SHRED Act — which could almost double his annual budget — would be “a game changer” for his stressed forest.
The ski industry whole-heartedly supports the SHRED Act, which has bipartisan support as it winds through committees in both the U.S. House and Senate. The legislation “is an ideal vehicle” for supporting recreational staff at the Forest Service because it directs revenue toward the areas with the most demand, said Geraldine Link, the head of policy at the National Ski Areas Association during a break last week from lobbying D.C. lawmakers to support the SHRED Act.
“High demand is a good problem to have for a public-private partnership whose mission is to get people out recreating on their national forests,” Link said.
The Forest Service is not alone in its record visitation. The National Park Service reported 51 of its 388 properties logged highest-ever visitor counts in 2021, when total visitation reached 297 million.
“When public land ski area visitation goes up, so do the fees that ski areas pay to the federal government under their permit terms,” Link said. “Those fees must be reinvested in recreation so that Forest Service staffing and services keep pace with public demand.”
Fitzwilliams, as head of the busiest, most economically vibrant forest in the country, has been a vocal proponent for increased funding for his forest. But when he gets a bump for his budget, it typically comes out of one of his fellow supervisor’s budgets.
“We have got to figure out a better way to allocate funds or develop new revenue sources,” he says.
The White River’s Dillon Ranger District is the nation’s most trafficked district, with four major ski areas, Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin. Visitation to those four resorts falls between 4 million and 5 million trips every winter. And the district is seeing similar warm-weather visitation outside of resort boundaries, which creates a larger impact than skiers on snowy trails built to host thousands a day.
“We have been a forest that always welcomed growth,” says Dillon district ranger Adam Bianchi. “But at some point we do hit a ceiling.”
At what point will that happen? Fitzwilliams wonders. Will it take even more growth to warrant increased investment or more strict growth management policies? He expects to enlist communities and members in the coming year to participate in the 2022 update to the White River National Forest comprehensive forest plan.
“But what does that mean for this forest and the wildlife and wild places and the ecological function and the lifestyles of the residents here?” he says. “These are the things this report has made me think about. We are squeezing this lemon pretty hard and we are getting a lot out of it but we are beginning to see the impacts of that. So what do we do? I don’t think people want us to say ‘Let’s just keep this train rolling and see what happens.’”
Beyond the call for political action, there’s a lot to unpack in Fitzwilliams’ forecasting about his forest. For an $18 million annual investment, the forest delivers a $1.6 billion return, or about $89 for every dollar invested. Surely it’s time to invest something back into that economic engine, he says.
Reforms of how the Forest Service funds budget-crushing costs of fighting wildfires are underway, which should free up more money for forest management and administration. Already the forest has forged first-of-its-kind progressive management strategies. Permits for backpackers in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness are required for next summer. Visitors to the Maroon Bells scenic area need reservations and bus tickets. Hanging Lake hikers must book a limited number of daily permits. Vail Pass winter users — skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers — have to pay a daily fee or buy a season pass. (The National Park Service last week announced plans to continue a pilot program requiring reservations next year at Rocky Mountain National Park, Glacier National Park in Montana and Utah’s Arches National Park.)
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Will Roush is the executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, which bills itself as the “conservation watchdog” of Colorado’s public lands. The Carbondale-based group has long advocated for recognition that recreation carries significant impacts to wildlife that are comparable to more extractive uses of public land, like mining, drilling and logging.
Roush hopes the public process involved in the new forest plan for the White River emphasizes “a quality over quantity approach to recreation.” Hopefully that means investment in neglected infrastructure to accommodate growth in existing high-traffic areas.
“We can’t stop people from moving to Colorado and wanting to get out on public lands but we can make sure when they get there they have the right facilities to help manage their use,” Roush says. “In my mind that means keeping the backcountry intentionally primitive and limiting new trail and road development and taking a more comprehensive look at recreational development. I would agree that we are the tipping point and building more is really not the answer.”
Roush and his conservation colleagues are quick to point out how much the forest has changed in the last decade of climate change. Warming temperatures are further stressing ecosystems, watersheds and wildlife.
The last amendment to the White River forest plan in 2002 made fleeting mention of climate change. The 2022 process should champion strategies for reducing the impact of a warming climate on forest landscapes, Roush said.
“The same tools we use to address recreation can be used to address climate change and a lot of that comes down to leaving intact large, unfragmented chunks of habitat,” Roush said.
More than fees, permits, reservations
Fees, reservations and a limited number of permits are the only tools Fitzwilliams has in his toolbox right now when it comes to limiting impacts from ever-escalating numbers of visitors. Last winter, Colorado’s 32 ski areas logged a record 13.8 million skier visits as national skier visits peaked at 60.7 million.
The surge in skier visits last season came despite below-average snowfall, a decline in international visitation and a labor shortage that challenged resort operators. Fitzwilliams does not expect to see any changes in the upward trajectory of visits and economic contributions flowing from the forest, he says.
So he asks what can be done to better balance the ecological protection of wildlife and watersheds with the crush of visitors.
“These are issues that are bigger than the Forest Service,” he says. “It makes me think we need some really serious community conversations about where we want to be and this trend line we are following. This kind of growth can’t be unlimited.The answer here is not another lane on I-70. It just can’t be. Where does everyone go when they get here?”