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Forest fun: fee or free? A tug-of-war over recreation is brewing between public forests and private businesses.

FOREST FUN fee or free?

The cross-country ski area at the top of Pattee Canyon, a winding wooded valley that snakes east from Missoula, Montana, is a dream come true for urban skiers. Just five miles from the edge of town, the Forest Service recreation area features wide groomed trails maintained by volunteers from the Missoula Nordic Ski Club in a happy partnership between government and community. Racers in Lycra body suits swoosh past YMCA ski classes and families out for the thrill of the occasional big downhill run. Best of all, use of the trail system is free of charge.

Thirty-five miles away, just across the state line in Idaho, employees with the Clearwater National Forest maintain an even larger trail system at Lolo Pass. Here seven feet of snow pile up each winter, providing dependable skiing throughout the season and on into May. Forest Service employees groom the trails four times a week with snowmobiles, providing a satisfactory surface for all levels of skiing. For $10 per vehicle, skiers can buy a Park 'n Ski sticker that entitles them to a whole season of skiing at Lolo Pass and other areas in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

In between these two Forest Service areas, the Nightingale Nordic ski center is struggling to get started. Owner Dick Rossignol, a Lolo, Montana, rancher with big ideas about multiple uses for his land, has built 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) of rolling, professional-quality ski trails on his summer grazing ground. With a grooming machine that sets tracks in a 14-foot-wide swath, Rossignol offers the ultimate in skiing pleasure, plus the safety of a ski patrol and the convenience of lessons, ski rentals, and a sandwich counter.

So how's business? Fair but not great, says Rossignol, attributing the lackluster startup to competition from public trail systems.

The rivalry in Missoula illustrates a fundamental issue surrounding public land management. Should recreation areas in public forests be in direct competition with private businesses? The question extends beyond ski trails. Public campgrounds, marinas, and even trails for mountain bikes can draw business away from private enterprise.

"It's difficult to provide services for a reasonable fee when the Forest Service provides groomed trails for $10 a year," says Rossignol. By contrast, adult skiers at Nightingale Nordic pay $5 a day for a trail pass or $75 for the season - not much by the standards of many cross-country centers, such as California's Royal Gorge, where a trail pass goes for $14 a day or more. Still, not many Missoula-area skiers will pay $5 a day at Nightingale when they can ski groomed trails at Lolo Pass in Clearwater National Forest for $10 a year or in Pattee Canyon for free.

Rossignol sees the effects of the competition most clearly when poor snow lower down chases skiers his way. "When the snow wasn't good in Pattee Canyon - about one week last winter - it nearly doubled our business," he says. Most winters, there's more ice than snow in Pattee Canyon, so Nightingale tends to look mighty good by comparison.

But there's always good snow a few miles away at Lolo Pass. "I don't think we're going to be able to stay in business if the Forest Service continues to subsidize trail grooming," says Rossignol.

Although some skiers would be sorry to see a private trail system go under, others vocalize the fact that public land is for public use. Some of the loveliest terrain in the country is publicly owned, and many skiers are starting to argue that taxpayers have already paid for the privilege of enjoying it. In that light, they say, grooming trails appears to be no different from building trails in the first place or offering ranger shows and interpretive displays - it's all a matter of providing public access to public land.

"The Forest Service has a role of providing the public with recreation opportunities," says Jerry Covault, recreation forester for Lolo National Forest, where Pattee Canyon is located. Covault contends that having a variety of good trails close at hand and free of charge increases interest in skiing, building a clientele that will eventually find their way to the private ski also serve those who ski after work for short periods, he says. "The private sector can't meet the needs of people day in and day out. People can't afford to pay a trail fee every day to ski for an hour."

To ca certain extent, the debate compares apples and oranges. Frequently, Forest Service trails are marked but not groomed. Some are groomed by local organizations, but the quality is rarely up to the standards of a professional ski area. And of course the private area has the advantages of ski patrols, restaurants, lodging, rentals, and lessons.

Still, a growing number of business owners in the cross-country ski industry claim that the competition is unfair. Because Park 'n Ski programs like Idaho's barely cover the cost of plowed parking lots, let alone trail grooming, the government makes up the difference with tax money. Though the grooming in areas like Pattee Canyon is done on a volunteer basis by a local organization, the government picks up the tab for building properly designed ski trails, which can cost several thousand dollars per kilometer. And of course the government doesn't have to pay off the cost of the land, as many private businesses do.

In the issue of public versus private recreation facilities, two social goals come into conflict: providing services to the public and encouraging private industry. It's not an easy conflict to resolve.

One way to explore the issue is to consider how it's resolved in another area of recreation - public and private campgrounds. The two types coexist in Door County, Wisconsin, an orchard-covered peninsula and artist colony separating Green Bay from Lake Michigan. Boasting five state parks, each with a distinctive terrain, Door County is a prime center for tourism.

Just outside Peninsula State Park, Wagon Trail Campground offers quiet wooded sites, well-maintained shower houses, and a sitting room with a fireplace for inclement weather. For amenities like these, many campers are willing to pay $14 a night per tent site, $8 more than Wisconsin residents pay at the state park.

How much campground owners feel the bite of competition depends largely on how much their facilities differ from those in the parks. "A lot of private campgrounds feel the state and national parks really hurt them," says Wagon Trail owner Jim Robinson. His own clients, who often pull their tents out of the trunks of BMWs, are less likely to consider public campgrounds because they prefer premium facilities. "Because" our prices are a little higher, price-conscious people won't come here anyway."

There were no private facilities when the government built its campgrounds, so private owners are hardly in a position to complain - especially about the primitive, sometimes crowded facilities of most public campgrounds. "If they want to take care of the primitive end of things, that's fine," Robinson says. "But if the state park would build facilities like I have and the price were the same - well, the state park has 12 miles of shoreline and I don't."

Robinson notes that the government is filling a niche with places like Wisconsin's Newport Beach State Park, a windswept expanse of trails and beaches with only 13 campsites, where no one in private industry could hope to make a living. "I think they should provide the vast stretches of land, the trails, and the pretty views," he says, "and let us take care of the nice facilities."

Steve Eubanks, coordinator of the National Recreation Strategy for the U.S. Forest Service, largely agrees. In recent years, the Forest Service has emphasized cooperating with local businesses in the design and management of recreational facilities. "We try to provide niches that are not available from other sources," says Eubanks, nothing that most Forest Service campgrounds are even more primitive than those in state and national parks. "If facilities are adequately available in the private sector, we're not going to build them." Increasingly, the Forest Service has granted concessions to private businesses to operate campgrounds or to rent canoes and rowboats.

Cross-country ski trails are more controversial, in part because both public and private groomed trail systems are springing up at the same time. Until a few years ago, almost no one groomed cross-country trails. Skiing cross-country meant ski-touring on hiking trails or heading into the mountains on no trail at all. As the sport has evolved, though, new techniques have developed that require a more refined surface. In particular, ski "skating" requires a broad, treeless swath, groomed by machine.

Ski skating is a cross-country technique that has gained rapidly in popularity over the past five years, particularly among racers. The ski skater slides the skis at an angle and moves rapidly over the snow much like an ice skater, rather than kicking and gliding in the traditional "diagonal" stride. Instead of a narrow trail where skiers leave two parallel tracks, skating requires a refined surface roughly eight feet wide.

Ski skating along with its more widespread cousin - skiing on parallel tracks - is a whole new sport, says Don Portman, vice president of Washington's Methow Valley Ski Touring Association and director of skiing at Sun Mountain Lodge in Winthrop. Compared with traditional touring through the woods, he says, track skiing "is a different animal. It's more like alpine skiing because it's dependent on technology." Accordingly, while it's still true that one can ski anywhere there's snow, a growing number of skiers prefer a well-designed network of trails that are carefully groomed each day.

For forest managers, the new techniques place cross-country ski trails midway between hiking trails and alpine ski areas. Traditionally, the government has provided trails and parking lots for hiking. A few decades ago, government agencies sometimes provided lifts or rope tows for downhill skiing as well, but for years now downhill skiing has been a commercial enterprise in National Forests. Is cross-country skiing more like hiking or like alpine skiing? The more sophisticated the grooming, the more like alpine skiing it becomes.

Trail grooming, though, is not everywhere the same. The best track is laid by the most expensive machines - not just snowmobiles dragging bed springs, but specially built grooming machines that can cost as much as $350,000. Many in the ski industry believe that trail grooming should be done properly so people have a good experience and are more likely to get involved in the sport.

Professional grooming is expensive, but more and more skiers are willing to pay the price. Originally, the Methow Valley organization built and maintained its 200-kilometer (124-mile) network of trails - which cross private, state, and federal lands - without charge to the public. Later the group instituted a parking fee and eventually a daily trail fee, collected by nearby businesses that profit from destination skiers. "We had few complaints when we raised the fee, because the grooming is so much better," says Portman, who contends that the better the grooming, the less the resistance to trail fees.

As the popularity of track skiing has skyrocketed, more and more private cross-country ski centers have sprung up across the nation. Some private businesses, such as the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Montana, have obtained leases from the Forest Service to build and maintain a private fee-based trail system on public land.

At the same time, local ski clubs have pressured public land managers to redesign existing trails for better skiing. Many clubs have purchased trail groomers for their members to use on public trail systems, in a partnership with the government agency.

Because government-maintained and nonprofit ski trails on public lands rarely cost more than a nominal parking fee and are often free of charge, the ski industry has grown increasingly concerned. Last year, the Cross Country Ski Areas Association (CCSAA), a trade group with 250 members in North America, issued a policy condoning government ski facilities and trail grooming only when they fill a void in the private sector. While supporting mutually advantageous public-and-private-sector "partnerships," the policy "actively encourages all providers of cross-country ski services to operate professionally and to charge competitive user fees for all services."

The concerns of the ski industry have found a receptive audience at the top. Last April, the Forest Service's assistant director of recreation, Richard Woodrow, attended a CCSAA convention in Bend, Oregon, and reported that the Forest Service will address the issue in its revised manual, which was published in the Federal Register last fall for public comment. "I think it's going to come out that the Forest Service should not be in competition with free enterprise," says Woodrow. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't do any grooming - in some regions there are no commercial areas available."

Woodrow notes that although the Forest Service will likely stop grooming where it would compete with commercial ski areas, it won't cancel agreements already in effect that permit local organizations to groom trails.

Like the Methow Valley Ski Touring Association, other local groups maintaining trails on public lands may begin charging trail fees to provide better grooming.

What would the new policy mean for Nightingale Nordic and Missoula skiers? Not surprisingly, Dick Rossignol is pleased. "I'm not proposing that there shouldn't be other types of skiing available, but I don't think the Forest Service should be building trails and grooming them on a daily basis for nothing," he says. "I wouldn't mind the competition if they charged something for it."

Mike McCoy, newsletter editor for the Missoula Nordic Ski Club, has mixed feelings. "Up to a certain point, the more groomed trails available, the more people will take up cross-country skiing," he says.

McCoy notes that many skiers enjoy having a variety of places to go. "People who ski up Pattee Canyon all week want to go somewhere else on the weekend." On the other hand, he says, it's probably best that the Forest Service not compete with private industry.

To a certain extent, the issue may resolve itself the same way it has in the camping industry, as skiers recognize the difference between an adequate facility and a top-quality one. In many parts of the country, private ski centers flourish by offering premium skiing for a price. As Wisconsin campground owner Robinson puts it, "As long as there's that difference, I don't see why we can't all get along."

PHOTO : Dick Rossignol's ski trails vie with public systems.

PHOTO : A trail groomer sets ski tracks at Lone Mountain Ranch.
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Author:Bahls, Jane Easter
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:50th birthday of big trees.
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