Feds, congressman disagree on ski areas signing over water rights

Gathering public comment isn’t enough to salvage plans by the U.S. Forest Service to require ski areas to sign over new water rights, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., said.

Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Daniel Jirón on Monday told the Legislature that the agency would conduct a public process aimed at ensuring ski areas would continue to operate well into the future.

Calling the Forest Service plan an “effort to hijack individual water rights,” Tipton on Tuesday said the agency would “tamper with state water law in order to accommodate a federal grab of private water rights.”

The Forest Service will respect Colorado water law as it drafts a national directive for the management of ski areas on national forest lands, Jirón said in an interview.

The process by which the Forest Service will seek out public comment, however, remains to be crafted, Jirón said.

“I’m hoping the public process slows everyone down so everyone can come together and look at the issues and understand them,” Jirón said.

The idea behind the directive is to help the Forest Service meet its objectives of assuring there will be enough water “that for decades communities can count on skiing” to bolster local economies in and around resort areas, Jirón said.

“We need to look far, far down into the future, not just for years but for decades,” he said.

The Forest Service required the new ownership at Powderhorn Mountain Resort to sign over water rights as a condition of obtaining a permit to operate on Forest Service land. It was the first time that the Forest Service directive was used and it prompted the National Ski Area Association to sue the Forest Service. A federal court last month threw out the directive, finding that the Forest Service hadn’t sought out public opinion. The judge’s ruling addressed none of the substance of the ski areas’ complaints, however.

The ski-area association said Tuesday that it welcomed the process.

“The ski industry will participate in that process. Because of the significant percentage of water that arises on federal lands, we hope that other water owners and users will get involved in the process as well,” association spokeswoman Geraldine Link said in an email.

Forest Service officials said last year the directive was needed to assure that ski areas would remain in business. Federal ownership of the rights would prevent ski areas from selling water rights if they became more valuable than the ski business itself.

The ski industry generates $1.6 billion in revenue annually in Colorado, Jirón said, noting that the agency is trying to support the industry.

The process will resemble the drafting of a federal regulation and will begin with a notice in the Federal Register, Jirón said.

“This is an extremely complex issue,” he said. “We’re making sure we get the right information on the table.”


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