Public Land-Use Fees Hit Record Highs for Colorado Resorts

You're not the only one paying more than ever to ski

The push and pull between the Forest Service and the ski areas that rely on its land is a constant shuffle and the price of operating a resort on USDA Forest Service land is higher than ever, new data shows. Eleven of Colorado’s ski areas lie within the expansive bounds of the White River National Forest, land that has been protected since 1891, and in 2015 those resorts paid an astounding $17.9 million in land-use fees. That’s nearly $2 million more than the total fees in 2014, according to financial data from the Forest Service.

Copper Mountain is one of 11 Colorado resorts that pays government fees ($1,246,660 this year) for the use of USDA Forest Service land. PHOTO: Courtesy of Copper Mountain
Copper Mountain is one of 11 Colorado resorts paying government fees ($1,246,660 this year) to operate on USDA Forest Service land. PHOTO: Courtesy of Copper Mountain

Though typically we’d be psyched about this arrangement—pouring revenue back into the protection of wild land—the money goes back to the US Treasury, rather than directly to the White River National Forest. However, on the bright side, the fees are determined by income and expenditure of the ski area throughout the year, meaning each of these resorts saw more economic activity in 2015 than in the past. It’s not directly related to lift ticket prices only; ski school, restaurants, development, lodging, and retail all factor into the fee.

The only resort to pay less in 2015 than in 2014 was Sunlight Mountain Resort, a small area outside of Glenwood Springs. The ski resort with the highest fee? Vail. In fact, the resort responsible for $175/day lift tickets pays a full third of the total cost forked over for land use in White River National Forest—nearly $6 million. And if the collective increase from 2014 to 2015 isn’t enough to raise eyebrows, take note: since 2010, the total amount has increased by roughly 45 percent.

Over 120 ski resorts lie on National Forest land, primarily in the West, and their development is not without its conflicts which are primarily environmental. According to an article from the National Forest Foundation, those 120-plus areas only cover about 1/10th of a percent of the land set aside for national forests, but the impact on their surroundings can be huge, thanks to transportation emissions, waste disposal, and other environmental stressors. Despite this, the government has historically promoted development within the forests to benefit public health and economic growth. Market forces and environmental pushback hindered growth in the 1980s through the early 2000s, but a 2011 law allowed ski areas to expand to offer more activities—including summer operations. The goal is to foster economic growth and, of course, encourage millions of people to experience the wild land set aside for recreation and preservation. Though ski areas sit at a confusing crossroads of retail and development, public health, and environmental impact, these laws—and the fees ski areas pay to the Forest Service—will hopefully encourage positive growth and change in all three areas.

Here’s a list of the complete fees:

A-Basin: $425,796
Aspen Highlands: $309,024
Aspen Mountain: $95,568
Beaver Creek: $1,434,696
Breckenridge: $4,351,381
Buttermilk: $232,090
Copper: $1,246,665
Keystone: $2,265,875
Snowmass: $1,572,590
Sunlight: $16,572
Vail: $5,973,624