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Law makes year-round operations easier for ski areas
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Law makes year-round operations easier for ski areas

Tammy Fountain has been hoping to add a disc-golf course and mountain biking trail to her Elk Ridge Ski and Outdoor Recreation Area near Williams.

But there was the little matter of title 16, chapter 2, subchapter 1, paragraph 497B of the U.S. Code standing in her way.

Because Elk Ridge is on federal land it was subject to the Ski Area Permits section of the code, which required Agriculture Department approval for ski areas and limited approved uses to nordic and alpine skiing.

Under a measure signed in to law this week, businesses like hers will be able to add activities and facilities for use in non-winter months.

“It opens up a wealth of possibilities and options,” Fountain said. “For what is usually a one-season area, now we can truly be a four-season area.”

President Barack Obama on Monday signed the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011. It allows mountain-bike terrain parks and trails, zip lines, rope courses and disc-golf courses on federal lands, while specifically prohibiting tennis courts, pools, water slides, golf courses and amusement parks.

The law applies to any ski resort on federal land, including three in Arizona: Elk Ridge, Arizona Snowbowl and Ski Valley on Mount Lemmon.

Supporters say the bill is important not just for outdoors enthusiasts but for area economies, which could use the boost from the new jobs that should come through an expansion of seasons.

“If we were to maintain the seasonal employment from the winter through the year we’d see a lot of that impact from sales and wages carry though the summer,” said Joe Galli, an official with the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce.

Galli pointed to studies that say 200,000 skiers who came in 2008 to Snowbowl added $53 million to the area’s economy, through direct payments and payroll taxes.

But critics worry that the economic benefits could be offset by environmental damage.

“If you have an area that has a hiking trail and you open it up for extreme mountain-biking, it’s going to cause issues,” said Sandy Bahr, a spokeswoman for the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Bahr is concerned that opening up the area to multiple uses could lead to multiple abuses. She believes the extreme nature of mountain-biking, for example, could put hikers in harm’s way and destroy the terrain.

“They’re not just riding, they’re riding fast. They’re ignoring who is out there, they’re ignoring that they’re ripping up the resources,” Bahr said.

But Fountain said the new law could actually prevent destruction by mountain bikes, by limiting their usage to a contained area.

“The vegetation is already gone, the trails have been used for years as ski trails,” she said.

This new legislation is just what Fountain has been waiting for.

Elk Ridge currently operates during the summer, with activities like tubing and hiking, but only employs five people. With the addition of mountain biking and disc golf, Fountain said she could double her staff to 10 during the summer months.

Dave Smith, spokesman for Arizona Snowbowl, does not think his resort will see any changes this summer, but he looks forward to the potential for new features and phases to come.

Arizona Snowbowl is a larger operation than Fountain’s, with nearly 500 seasonal employees and 50 to 60 year-round staff members compared to 15 to 20 seasonal employees at Elk Ridge and five year-round staff members – for now.

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