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Forest Service gives ski areas a 'shot in the arm'

The owners of Soldier Mountain Ski Area spent this past winter praying for snow harder than anyone else. They waited longer than any other ski resort in the area, missing the crucial Christmas break, and finally scrounged up enough snow to open on Feb. 13. Their ski season lasted 13 days.

"Try running a business with 13 days of income," said Kristi Schiermeier, chair of Soldier Mountain's board. "All the other ski resorts were finishing up their season, and we had just opened."

The little two-chairlift ski area outside of Fairfield runs as a nonprofit today. But the 2013-2014 winter was devastating.

Schiermeier and her board made the decision to honor all season passes and many vouchers issued during the dismal ski season, representing a $60,000 loss to the resort. The lack of snow hurt the community as a whole, as Soldier Mountain hired 40-50 people from Fairfield--population 416--making it one of the biggest employers in Camas County. Those employees planned to work for at least two months. They got less than two weeks.

Suffering through the lackluster winter, Schiermeier was ecstatic when she heard of the U.S. Forest Service's new policy guidelines to allow more year-round recreation opportunities at ski areas on Forest Service land. The guidelines came out in mid-April, allowing activities like zip lines, mountain biking, disc golf and rope courses.

Soldier Mountain got its special use permit on Forest Service land in 1949, but the permit is strictly for winter recreation. That meant Schiermeier had to ask special permission for anything from concerts to weddings to family reunions taking place at the ski area.

"It's hard when you want to do something you think sounds fun, but the government has to think about it. ... If [an activity] isn't in your winter recreation plan, forget it. If you forgot to say you wanted to serve potato chips in the lodge, forget it," she said. "But now, we don't have to ask for everything. We can have dinners and festivals."

She's filled with ideas for summer recreation opportunities on the mountain's 1,150 acres, like geocaching, frisbee golf, archery contests, the Knobby Tire Race--a 26-mile mountain bike race through the ski area--and a summer festival on June 21-22 with all-day live music.

"This is a little shot in the arm," Schiermeier said. "Maybe we can survive."

Soldier Mountain is a huge part of Schiermeier's history. She was born and raised in Fairfield after her grandmother came to the area in a covered wagon. She met her husband on a blind date at Soldier Mountain. Then they owned the resort for 15 years before selling it to Bruce Willis with high hopes. He didn't do much with the mountain before he turned around and donated it back as a 501(c)3. Now, Schiermeier works as the chair of the board, a volunteer, an office administrator and the manager of summer operations.

Schiermeier isn't the only one a little relieved with the new guidelines. Steve Frost works as recreation program manager at the Sawtooth National Forest's Fairfield office, and his job just got a little easier. He works closely with Soldier Mountain, approving various recreation activities throughout the summer. Now, he won't have to spend much more time on that.

"People like me don't have to sit around and say, 'Hmm, I wonder if that should be allowed or not,'" Frost said. "It streamlines that process. This act takes care of clarification; it says what's in and what's out. Where in the past we might have been wondering if we should do something or not, this gives us clear direction."

The new guidelines don't allow everything. Any permanent construction still requires the Forest Service to perform an analysis and allow public comment. But Frost is excited about the guidelines for another reason, too.

"It's good for the public to have more opportunities on National Forest land," he said. "And it opens the door for ski areas to be more of a year-round operation, which is obviously good for their bottom line."

Especially for Soldier Mountain. But other area ski resorts don't need the new guidelines as desperately. For Sun Valley, July and August are the resort's busiest months anyway. The resort sells 20,000 lift tickets in the summer alone. Bogus Basin owns a square-mile of the land its resort is on, allowing resort officials to do a lot without Forest Service permission. Schweitzer Mountain Resort, in the North Idaho Panhandle, isn't on Forest Service land at all.

The Forest Service might be throwing a bone to the 122 ski areas on public land nationally--many of which may be struggling to cope with shorter snow years--in an attempt to give them more revenue. But these changes also stem from larger trends in outdoor recreation.

Dave Olson, Boise National Forest spokesman, told Boise Weekly that when most of the special use permits were doled out 60 or 70 years ago, everyone wanted to ski. Now, more people than ever are hiking and mountain biking and playing disc golf, as well. Olson said these new guidelines reflect the growing interest in outdoor recreation as a whole.

The Forest Service estimates these new changes will increase summer visits on National Forest land by 600,000 nationwide. The agency expects a $40 million boost to local mountain communities throughout the country.

"We are so excited that it passed," Schiermeier said. "It's huge."

Now her challenge will be to attract the Magic and Treasure valleys to the mountain, year-round. Her husband, who works as mountain manager, just bought and donated two more chairlifts, which will effectively double the mountain's terrain. Weather pending.

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