Ski Area Development NEPA- Two or Three Layer Process?

Here’s a story from the Aspen Daily News about a recent case on a specific ski area development, a ski trail on Burnt Mountain East at Snowmass Ski Area.

In discussing forest planning, we talk about doing NEPA at a more conceptual level, and then at a project level (oil and gas leasing decision, travel management, fuel treatments, etc.). Here is some of the same conversation around two layers of ski area NEPA- which leaves, including forest plans, actually a three- layer analysis. Could this decision process be designed better?

15 thoughts on “Ski Area Development NEPA- Two or Three Layer Process?”

  1. This seems like a lot of to do to widen a ski trail. Who pays for the Forest Service’s environmental analysis and court costs? I would hope that the ski area would pay the lions share of the cost.

  2. My understanding is that the proponent generally pays for the master plan and the EIS or EA for the project. However, there are a variety of federal personnel costs associated with making the FS decision, reviewing the environmental document prepared by the contractor, appeal prep and the conducting of the appeal, and litigation case prep (note comment on administrative record)and the legal work in defending the case. These are all federal employees, including Forest Service, Office of General Counsel and Department of Justice.

    As the article says “Stark oversaw the initial local review of SkiCo’s proposal and later spent hundreds of hours preparing documents for the court.”

    Someone who may know more, please correct me.

  3. I think a fundamental part of this particular (ski area) related discussion is that, a few years ago, the FS decided to approve ski area master plans as conceptual master plans, without NEPA – making the argument that site-specific proposals still get NEPA, so the public still has a chance to be involved. Everything gets pinned back to the forest plan. In my mind, that leaves a big gap between the broad outlines of forest plans and site-specific projects. I still don’t understand why the FS agreed to let ski areas cook up master plans with NO formal public involvement. Any good answers to that would be appreciated.

    • Bob — The Forest Service eliminated the winter sports handbook from its directives system. In its stead, the FS has chosen to treat ski areas like any other special use. The special use proponent defines the scope of the permit it seeks. Suppose the ski area developer envisions a 7-run resort and associated golf course on national forest lands. In the old days, the FS would assess this big enchilada in an EIS. In the new days, the FS only does so if the developer is silly enough to apply for the whole thing in one bite.

      Instead, the smart developer will segment its proposal ensuring that each piece is independently justifiable, e.g., doesn’t rely upon other pieces for financial justification (the FS does like to know that project proponents won’t go bankrupt leaving a carcass on national forests). First will come a couple of ski runs. A few years later, some more. Few years after that the golf course. Etc.

  4. Yes, and public is out of the loop during a key step in the process, as far as I can see. All of a sudden, a resort just “hatches” a master plan that’s already approved by the Forest Service. Then, when people raise concerns about an expansion, the FS says, “it’s in the forest plan, it’s in the ski area master plan.”

  5. During one of the recent controversies around a proposal and how that proposal related to the forest plan, we wrote up something about the process.. I’ll see if I can find it.

    P.S. Andy, I’m pretty sure golf courses aren’t allowed.

  6. Thanks, Andy – I had never read these..So you could have equally used “trailer court” or “orchard” in your example.

    Here’s what I managed to round up. I am not saying that the below is 100% accurate, but that it is the most relevant that I could easily find. I’d be interested in any corrections by those more knowledgeable.

    Master Development Plans (MDPs) are the conceptual foundation of ski area operations. They provide a framework that outlines operational components, such as modernization of lifts and other facilities; physical components, like land base, locations for existing and future ski runs and snow-making; amenities; and non-ski related recreation opportunities. In addition to a planning tool, a MDP is a critical part of securing capital from investors and relaying a vision to shareholders. All ski areas – regardless of use or proximity to federal or other public lands – develop and maintain MDPs as a core business function.

    NEPA and Ski Area Planning

    In the mid-90s the US Forest Service began to advance the philosophy that MDPs should not be subject to NEPA review. Prior to this, NEPA review for MDPs was standard consideration. The conceptual nature of MDPs, and their needed flexibility (to accommodate advances in technology and recreational preference), make it cumbersome for a static NEPA analysis. However, this is not a fixed policy. Substantial variation in ski area scope and scale, forest plans, and public interest have lead to a custom approach on a MDP-by-MDP basis.

    Depending on the situation, separate NEPA analysis could be required for the following:

    1. Allocation of federal lands for downhill skiing in a Forest Plan;
    2. Issuance of a ski area special use permit;
    3. Development and approval of a MDP; and
    4. Proposal of site-specific projects

    As an alternative to formal NEPA review of MDPs, the agency has shifted toward accepting or not accepting a plan. This is largely based on the premise that a MDP does not approve any on-the-ground activities, and is used as input rather than as a proposed action. Subsequent project-level NEPA will meet requirements for analysis, disclosure, cumulative effects, and connected actions, as well as provide public involvement and participation in the proposal.

    Accepting or rejecting a MDP (deemed more nimble and adaptable approach) is generally considered preferable by ski area interests and the US Forest Service. However, there is no formal policy that makes this a standard operating procedure.

  7. To me, it’s stunning that the FS would acknowledge that ski area MDPs are critical to “obtaining funding and relaying a vision to shareholders” yet not involve the public formally in the formulation of those plans. The investors and shareholders don’t own that land, the American people do. Some resorts have informally involved the public, others, here in Summit County, have worked behind the scenes with the FS to create the plans, then present them as Fait Accomplis.

  8. Bob- thanks for making the clarification between “involving the public” and NEPA. While NEPA requires formal public involvement,there are a variety of other mechanisms to involve the public that do not require environmental analysis. If we go back to the concerns expressed above in the news story, they seemed to be around the lack of utility of trying to describe environmental effects of things you might do, not knowing IF you’re going to do it, where, when or how. Bark beetles and the recession are examples of unpredictable future events that can change the environment and would not have been analyzed in a forest plan or MDP and we would still have to analyze as proposals come forward.

    This could be another example of carefully looking at “who’s at the table”.

  9. It ws based on some discussion a while back- nothing formal- that’s why I used the many caveats above and hoped that someone could add to it. However, I do believe there is a paper on the subject
    “Ski Area Planning and NEPA – An Evolving Effort by Loren Kroenke, National Winter Sports Program Manager, US Forest Service”. I can try to locate and post.


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