Feds plan hearings on ski areas’ water rights

The U.S. Forest Service is rethinking its approach to a directive that was thrown out of court this year when ski areas sued to halt a new federal policy.

“I think the Forest Service learned a lesson in terms of approaching this issue,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a congressional committee on Tuesday. “We obviously did not provide enough notice and enough clarification and understanding.”

Pressed by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., whether the Forest Service would still “pursue federal preemption of Colorado water rights?” Vilsack said the Forest Service was considering a federal judge’s order that the agency gather public comment before enforcing the directive.

The Forest Service required new owners of Powderhorn Mountain Resort to sign over water rights as a condition of obtaining a permit to operate the resort, which sits on Forest Service land. It was the first time that the Forest Service directive was used.

The National Ski Areas Association, which represents ski resorts across the country, filed suit last year, contending enforcement of the directive amounted to a taking of private property.

Officials are trying to determine how to respond to the ruling, Vilsack told members of the Agriculture Committee.

“I will tell you that the focus here is making sure we use our U.S. forest lands in the most appropriate way to conserve and preserve water,” Vilsack said. “One of our driving principles of forest management is water management, because we recognize how precious the water is.”

Forest Service officials had said it was necessary for the agency to hold the water rights, which are generally used for snowmaking, so that ski areas couldn’t sell the rights, should they become more valuable for other purposes.

Other opponents of the directive said they feared the federal government would seize water rights for other uses, such as grazing or municipal water supplies, if it succeeded with taking ski-area water rights.

Those issues aren’t going away, Club 20 Executive Director Bonnie Petersen said after learning of Vilsack’s comments.

“I did not get a sense or any indication that the Forest Service is going to change its posture,” Petersen said. “They’ll plan public hearings and whatever happens remains to be seen.”


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