by Nick Exline, AICP, Zephyr Cove, Nevada
There are currently 121 ski areas that operate on public lands. Historically, summer uses were all but precluded on those ski resorts. This near prohibition led to vacant ski resorts in the summer, which resulted in underutilized public lands and a missed economic and recreational opportunity for alpine communities. However, on November 7, 2011, President Obama signed into law the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act (“the 2011 Act” S. 382/H.R. 765). This 2011 Act established a regulatory process for permitting summer uses and more robust allowable summer uses at the nation’s ski areas that operate on public lands.
Traditionally, these alpine communities rely heavily on winter recreational activities and the economic ripple that these activities have on a destination economy. However, with the natural unpredictability of the snow pack and in the face of climate change, the regulatory process established by the 2011 Act aids in ensuring that these public lands are utilized efficiently while bolstering the economic realities of alpine communities.
Although allowing for more recreational activities, the 2011 Act only specifically allowed four uses (zip lines, mountain bike parks/trails, Frisbee golf courses, and ropes courses) and excluded five (tennis courts, water slides/parks, swimming pools, golf courses and amusement parks). With such a limited number of allowed and excluded uses, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) from 2012 -2013 developed a screening process that would be used to evaluate the permissibility of any proposed summer use package on Forest Service land.
Resorts begin the planning and permitting process
Following the adoption of the 2011 Act, Vail Resorts began planning for summer uses at three of its mountain resorts: Vail Mountain and Breckenridge Ski Resort, both in Colorado, and Heavenly Mountain Resort in California and Nevada.
Heavenly was the first Lake Tahoe resort to propose activities under this federal bill. The physical location of Heavenly posed some interesting regulatory challenges. Heavenly is located on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Jurisdictionally Heavenly is located on Forest Service land and is bisected by California and Nevada, El Dorado County in California and Douglas County in Nevada and is partially located within the City of South Lake Tahoe. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) and the Lahontan Water Quality Control Board also regulate Heavenly.
During the early phases of the planning process, representatives from Heavenly met extensively with regulators and stakeholder groups to develop a summer use package that would not only be appropriate for the area but would also continue their proven environmental stewardship. As a result of this outreach, it was determined that any proposal would need to adhere to four basic principles. These principles included:
- Allowing for greater access to the forested mountain environment
- Providing a range of activities on the mountain that appeal to multi-generational groups
- Expanding year-round non-ski recreational opportunities within the ski area boundaries
- Aiding in bringing the TRPA recreational and water quality thresholds closer into attainment
The summer use package - Epic Discovery Project
Utilizing these principles, Heavenly began to develop their summer use package. During this development, Heavenly continued to work with regulators and stakeholders to ensure compliance with applicable regulations, while meeting the needs of locals and tourists alike. This effort resulted in a summer use package that became known as the Heavenly Mountain Resort Epic Discovery Project. The project included a zip line canopy tour, challenge course, sky cycle canopy tour, alpine coaster, mountain bike park and trails, mountain tours, and a lookout tower.
The proposed project was required to go through Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s ten step environmental impact statement process in addition to the Forest Service review process. These reviews were conducted concurrently. As a result of the summer package being the first of its kind on Forest Service land, it was heavily scrutinized.
The Forest Service had four major steps within the review process before they could approve the proposed project. The first step was to ensure that the project was consistent with the 2011 Act. The proposed project was found to be consistent with the 2011 Act, thus allowing the Forest Service to reach a Consistency Determination. The project was evaluated to determine consistency with the USFS Forest Land and Resource Management Plan. The determination of consistency was reached, allowing the proposal to go through the National Environmental Policy Act process and culminating in a Draft Record of Decision authorizing the project and the full summer use package.
Importance of Collaborative Process
During the Forest Service and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency process, changes were made to the proposed project. One example included an issue with a proposed coaster location. As a result of realities on the ground, Forest Service staff determined that the proposed location of the coaster was abutting a Stream Environmental Zone, bisected martin habitat and could have a negative impact on the skiing and snowboarding terrain. As a result of these findings, Forest Service staff denied the location of the proposed coaster. However, as a result of a predescribed collaborative process that was developed by the Forest Service, Heavenly and various stakeholders, the location of the coaster was changed to an area with less environmental impact. The establishment of the collaborative process at the onset was instrumental in ensuring that when problems arose they could be investigated, discussed and, if necessary, changed without adding large amounts of time to the review and permitting process.
As a result of the heavy scrutiny regarding this first of its kind project, the Forest Service required additional conditions within the Record of Decision. The project would need to be phased. The project would also need to engage in a post-approval, but pre-construction review. A 30 and 60 percent completion evaluation would need to go before the Forest Service landscape architects for review. Additionally, the project would also need to go before a regional review. The goal of these conditions is to ensure that the project, as it is developed, does not create any unforeseen negative environmental or scenic impacts.
On March 26, 2015, the proposed summer use package went before the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board to certify the environmental impact statement (step 9 of 10) and to approve the project decision along with a master plan amendment. The Governing Board consists of 15 members. Seven of these members are from California and seven are from Nevada with one non-voting Presidential Appointee. Of these 15 members, six members are locally elected officials or their designees with the remaining members being from outside the Tahoe Basin. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Bi-State Compact provides for a majority of the seats to be held by citizens from outside the Tahoe Basin to provide better at-large representation from the two states.
Community members and various stakeholder groups heavily attended the March 26 Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board meeting. The public comments were overwhelmingly favorable to the proposed project. Common themes began to develop during the public comment section of the proceedings. These themes can be broken up into three primary groups: economic, environmental and stewardship.
- Economic: The vast majority of speakers referenced the economic benefits the proposal would have on the local economy. These economic benefits not only included tourist revenue that will be generated but the fact that Heavenly would be able to support more year-round staff.
- Environmental: The project proposed several water quality mitigation measures, a survey and protection plan to protect active migratory bird nest sites, implementation of a conservation strategy for the whitebark pine and an eventual Sierra Nevada Yellow Legged Frog survey.
- Stewardship: Many individuals who come to visit the Tahoe Basin reside in urbanized areas in which interaction with the natural environment can be limited. Many speakers applauded Heavenly for providing multi-generational options, including those for people with disabilities so that everyone can have an opportunity to view and explore the Sierra Nevada Mountains firsthand. The goal being that many of those who come and visit will be informed stewards.
Following public comments and deliberation, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board unanimously approved the Heavenly Mountain Resort’s Epic Discovery Project. Joanne S. Marchetta, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Executive Director, stated, following the decision, “The Epic Discovery Project represents an exciting, collaborative model for sustainable recreation that successfully balances environmental preservation and education with economic revitalization and improved outdoor recreational opportunities, all consistent with Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s Regional Plan.”
In May 2015, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board approved the proposal, allowing the resort to move forward with implementation. Heavenly began construction on the summer use elements during the summer 2015. The plans for Heavenly revolve around the concept of “learning through play” by featuring extensive environmental educational elements among the numerous new interactive activities located in already developed areas. Additionally, Heavenly is working with the USFS Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, the League to Save Lake Tahoe and The Nature Conservancy to bring scientific and educational content to the eco-discovery experiences.
As alpine communities grapple with the realities of climate change and a re-evaluation of economic development in the face of a changing climate, it is imperative that the communities continue to think creatively. Through the implementation of a forward-thinking regulatory environment and innovative private capital, an array of positive projects and planning can take place. As Heavenly Mountain Resort demonstrated, these summer use projects can benefit the economy, community and the environment.
Nick Exline, AICP, is a Senior Planner with Midkiff and Associates, Inc. He also spent two and a half years as a planner for Washoe County, Nevada. He worked extensively on planning issues in Incline Village, Lake Tahoe including: affordable housing, creation of general improvement districts, single family additions/modifications, and contributed to Incline Village Area Plans.
- Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. (2015, March 26). TRPA Monthly Governing Board Meeting.
- Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. TRPA Approves Heavenly Epic Discovery Project. TRPA, 27 Mar. 2015. http://www.trpa.org/trpa-approves-heavenly-epic-discovery-project/
- ‘Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act’ Aims To Boost Summer Ski Area Activities, Year-Round Employment.” Huffington Post, 4 December 2011.
- United States of America. Congressional Government Tracking. Text of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011. U.S. Government, 7 Nov. 2011.
- Heavenly Lake Tahoe. 29 Apr. 2015. http://www.skiheavenly.com.
Published in the February/March 2016 Issue