WESTERN SAN JUANS – The U.S. Forest Service announced last month that it’s embarking on a public process to develop policies regarding water rights on Forest Service lands that contain ski areas and other permitted uses.
The decision to move forward in developing a new codified policy for water rights comes after the U.S. District Court, in National Ski Areas Association, Inc. v. United States Forest Service, ruled that the federal agency must vacate its 2012 Forest Service Directive on ski area water rights. According to information provided by the U.S. Forest Service, the judge overseeing the case declined to rule on the substance of the Forest Service directive, but indicated that the agency should proceed with public notice and comment for this type of directive.
The U.S. Forest Service has a directive system that consists of manuals and handbooks that spell out policy and provide administrative direction to manage Forest Service lands. Following that ruling, U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region spokesman Chris Strebig said the agency will work to build a new manual that will govern water rights in the future.
“We had a Forest Service directive and the National Ski Areas Association took us to court because they believed we didn’t follow the correct procedures,” Strebig said. “What was announced is that the Forest Service is embarking on a public process that will bring people together to help us build a Forest Service manual that governs special use permits and associated water rights.”
On Jan. 28, Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Daniel Jirón spoke before the Colorado General Assembly House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee in Denver. With the 22 ski areas in Colorado bringing in $1.5 billion annually to the state, Jirón emphasized the importance of maintaining a healthy ski/tourist economy.
“Establishing an inclusive process on this important issue will help meet long-term goals,” Jirón said. “Maintaining the water with the land will ensure a vibrant ski industry, and resilient and healthy national forests and mountain communities into the future.”
Jirón continued by telling committee members that it’s his agency’s obligation, through water a rights policy, to sustain skiing in national forests for the long term.
“We know that the need for snowmaking is likely to grow, as evidenced by our current prolonged drought and warmer winters, which increases the importance of these issues for the industry and the public,” he said. “We want mountain communities to thrive based on the success of recreational opportunities offered in nearby national forests. By ensuring that water stays with the land for snowmaking and other purposes necessary for ski area operations, Forest Service policy supports the long term viability of these activities that are so important to skiers, the mountain communities, and visitors from around the world.”
While details on how the Forest Service will proceed in drafting new a new water rights directive have not been discussed, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) said he believes it would be wrong to implement a directive that would require the transfer of privately held water rights to the federal government as a special use permit condition.
“While I appreciate the Forest Service’s willingness to increase public input on matters relating to water rights and public land management, and feel that public opinion should drive policy decisions in this area, I deeply believe that any directive adopted should comply with state water law and protect existing individual water rights,” Tipton said in a statement released on Jan. 28. “The fact remains that this proposed permit requirement would tamper with state water law in order to accommodate a federal grab of private water rights. This is wrong, and I intend to protect the water rights that many Colorado communities and businesses rely on for their livelihoods.”
In October of 2011, Tipton sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reconsider implementing a permit condition to require the transfer of privately held water rights to the federal government as a permit condition on National Forest System lands.
Strebig emphasized that details of a new directive are yet to be determined and that they will unfold in the upcoming national process.
“This is will be a public process,” Strebig said. “Colorado is an international recreational destination and we want to make sure that continues.”