What would Smokey say about water rights?

Smokey Bear became famous for advocating extra precautions to prevent forest fires.

Smokey’s predilection for precaution, however, goes only so far, it would seem.

The Forest Service has agreed to pay $125,000 to the National Ski Areas Association for attorney fees in a case filed by the association to halt the use of a controversial lease clause.

U.S. District Judge William Martinez in Denver ruled in that case that the Forest Service failed to seek public comment about its policy of requiring ski areas to submit new water rights to the Forest Service as a condition of their leases of lands on the national forests.

It doesn’t take a mastery of rocket science to realize that ski areas, particularly those in the West, have spent and will spend a lot more money to make snow so as to get as many skiers on as many slopes as soon as possible once the leaves of fall have been swept away.

Ski areas are in the business of giving skiers what they want, and they become rightly skeptical when the Forest Service is suddenly solicitous — saying that it’s interested only in preserving skiing — and then becoming insistent that the resorts surrender their water rights.

Smokey would have advised the Forest Service to talk to ski areas before invoking the water-rights clause, which it did for the first time with the new ownership at Powderhorn Mountain Resort on Grand Mesa.

The deal put to Powderhorn was simple: You don’t sign over the rights, you don’t get to run your ski area, for which you just paid millions of dollars.

Powderhorn signed the deal and the association sued.

The outcome was that the judge gutted the new water-right requirement. To keep it, the service must seek public comment, just as all land-management agencies are required to do.

The Forest Service now has gone overboard the opposite way. It’s conducting a nationwide “listening tour” with focus groups of various constituencies, from environmental organizations to ski areas to domestic and agricultural water providers, all aided by a facilitator.

Good thing Smokey had no such entourage. He’d still be figuring out how to tell people that only they could prevent forest fires.

Once the tour of Denver, Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe, Nev., and Washington, D.C. is completed, the Forest Service will emerge with a proposed water-rights policy, which it then will submit to a traditional comment gathering.

All of that will be on top of paying for most of the ski association’s bills, costs that could easily have been avoided.

We don’t know if anyone keeps such records, but this is starting to look like an extraordinarily expensive policy-making process, one we fear is taking on a taxpayer-be-darned appearance.



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