By Charles Pekow
Ski slopes in national forests can officially get used for mountain biking in the off season. Many already are but the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) finalized its policy in April officially allowing off-season ski slope mountain biking. USFS is implementing a law Congress passed in 2011 to allow additional recreational activities in designated ski areas in national forests.
In its new directive (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2014-04-17/html/2014-08893.htm), USFS outlines criteria for its land managers to use in determining what activities to allow on a case-by-case basis. Neither the law nor the directive require USFS to allow mountain biking at any ski slopes – it only permits them at local discretion in “appropriate circumstances,” saying mountain biking can “harmonize with the natural environment.” Local advocates will have to present their case and work with USFS at every stage from planning to maintenance.
USFS did get some opposition to its plan to permit mountain biking. Some respondents in a public comment period called them “mechanized equipment.” Respondents also complained that areas should remain wild and undeveloped, used by humans only for quiet, nature-based recreation. But the 2011 Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act specifically permits development and use of mountain bike trails. Some places, such as Aspen/Snowmass Ski Resort in the White River National Forest in Colorado have already added downhill paths under an interim directive USFS had previously issued.
USFS will require, though, that mountain bike “facilities be either visually consistent with or subordinate to the ski area's existing facilities, vegetation, and landscape. Potential resource concerns associated with proposed facilities can be addressed during environmental analysis.”
And USFS is requiring that no mountain bike facilities be constructed that could interfere with skiing or require major new development. And managers could close trails if use would cause erosion or otherwise harm the environment.
So the directive may lead to new mountain biking opportunities in national forests, but only with persistence and patience. “From the concept to the design to actually using a trail can take several years. There are all sorts of people involved in that process,” warns Aimee Ross, advocacy manager for the International Mountain Bicycling Association. All new projects will have to go through an environmental review. “It could be a two-year process or a 10-year process.”
But ski resorts are interested, as it will bring guests to their resorts in national forests during the off-season. “We have had several resorts come to us for our help with that process,” Ross says.
A local group that wants to create a mountain bike trail on a national forest ski slope needs to make friends. Get the resort's approval. It shouldn’t be hard as it means more off-season business, which they'll need as global warming gradually reduces snowfall. “Get everyone on the same page so the resort understands the needs of the mountain bike community,” Ross says. And USFS staff are likely to respond better if different groups agree. It may be that other folks want a cross-country path around the resort. If the two groups agree on a plan that can accommodate both, staff will be happier to oblige, Ross suggests.
National forests are governed by land use plans that are updated every 10 or 15 years. “If you are lucky and you know there is a land management process, go ahead,.” Ross says. If the next scheduled review is several years down the slope, “the process is a little more complicated.”
Remember that mountain bikers have an easier job dealing with reviews and environmentalists than other forest uses, such as ATV riders. The trouble, though, is that “summer activities have a greater impact on wildlife and water runoff,” as animals are more dormant in winter than summer, notes Gavin Feiger, coordinator for the Ski Area Citizens Coalition, a group that monitors the environmental policies of ski resorts.
While mountain biking itself may only cause minimal slope erosion, extending the season at ski resorts increases the greenhouse gases. “If you have hotels open year round, “kitchens are open, laundries are open,” Feiger notes. But using ski slopes already stripped of trees and brush causes much less environmental damage than building downhill bike trails elsewhere in forests, he adds.
In addition to being “already disturbed,” ski areas tend to be well maintained, allowing easier access for other users, notes Troy Duffin of Alpine Trails, Inc., a Utah-based trail builder. USFS will also be happy because the ski resorts will pay for the maintenance, saving federal money, Duffin says.