Five weeks after extreme fire danger led the Forest Service to close six large areas of the Coconino National Forest, the decision is receiving political heat fueled largely by its impacts to Arizona Snowbowl.
On Friday, 10 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen lamenting the inclusion of Arizona Snowbowl in the partial forest closure implemented May 23.
Under the closure order, Snowbowl has had to temporarily halt most of its summer operations, including the popular scenic chairlift, disc golf and a new bungee trampoline and mini ropes course. That, the resort says, has forced it to lay off or furlough all of its summer employees— a total of more than 70 people.
The resort has made a request for its operations to be exempt from the Forest Service closure order. Its request included plans to stop every vehicle heading up Snowbowl Road and record their license plate numbers, control the route to Agassiz Lodge and educate guests on extreme fire danger, according to Snowbowl General Manager J.R. Murray.
In an email, Murray stated that the inclusion of Snowbowl in the closure order is not consistent with national policy, though he didn’t explain why.
He said the resort has a comprehensive incident management plan that includes fire prevention and fire suppression within the ski area. In advocating for an exemption, Murray pointed out that the resort inherently has many fire breaks in the form of ski trails as well as safe zones, more than 150 hydrants and a 10 million gallon pond that’s used for snowmaking during the winter.
Moisture and fuel loads are also different at the higher elevation where Snowbowl is located, he stated in an email.
In Friday’s letter, the legislators from New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Arizona stated that the forest closure has wreaked “havoc on the local economy” and went on to request that the Forest Service provide a detailed briefing justifying the closure, or immediately reopen Snowbowl so that its summer operations can resume.
“We are obliged to determine why the USFS has taken the unprecedented action of abruptly closing the ski area for reason of a hypothetical rather than actual threat — and with only minimal notice and no consultation provided to resort operators,” the letter said.
Democrat Tom O’Halleran, who represents Congressional District 1 that includes all of Coconino County, was not among the letter’s signatories but said he is also working on a compromise.
He said he has been helping foster discussions between Mountain Capital Partners, the owner of Arizona Snowbowl, and the Forest Service that he said are “paying off.”
“The two are already in talks about allowing expanded operations, should public safety concerns be addressed. I am very concerned about the impact this closure has had on business, but it is critical that we balance our public safety needs with the needs of businesses in the area,” O’Halleran said in the statement.
Coconino National Forest spokesman Brady Smith responded via email that prior to entering area closures, forest leadership and permit administrators “outreached extensively” to a range of community members and forest users, including Murray.
The confluence of the Memorial Day holiday and the first days of forest closures kept staff on the Coconino National Forest busy over the weekend.
The agency also granted the ski resort some limited exemptions to the closure order, Smith said. Snowbowl is allowed, for example, to continue weddings and special events as long as they take place in the ski lodges or on adjacent decks. It can also move forward with erosion control projects, installation of certain summer activities near the Agassiz Lodge and annual maintenance on facilities and equipment.
That the Forest Service didn’t offer further exemptions goes back to the agency’s primary concern about the safety of those in the San Francisco Peaks. If a wildfire were to start on any section of the mountain, it has a likelihood of burning intensely and quickly up the slope, Smith said in an email.
“The probability increases on the south and west sides of the Peaks due to traditional southwest winds, which would drive a wildfire directly toward the resort and could cut off access to Snowbowl Road thereby trapping people at the resort,” Smith said. “We continue to work with Snowbowl on this issue.”
The last time the forest closed in 2006, Snowbowl’s scenic chairlift was also required to stop operations, according to a press release from that year.
Smith explained that all of the areas included in this year’s temporary closure order, including the San Francisco Peaks, represent places where the topography, prevailing winds and values like homes and municipal watersheds would make a wildfire difficult if not impossible to control in the dry conditions. Warm and dry weather is set to continue for at least another week, keeping the area in extreme fire danger.
Tourism economy strong
So far, the forest closure and the temporary suspension of operations at Arizona Snowbowl haven’t wreaked havoc on the local economy as the legislators’ letter stated, at least according to data from the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Looking at the metrics... I can't say that," said Lori Pappas, marketing and media relations manager at the bureau.
Brian and Dee Hill were among a handful of campers occupying the sites at Canyon Vista Campground Monday morning. The couple is from Phoenix a…
Through the end of May, hotel room rates were tracking slightly higher than last year, which was a “pinnacle” year in terms of performance, Pappas said. While room occupancy rates were down slightly, there are an additional 300 rooms in town over last year, she said.
Some people do feel the closure more than others, Pappas said, but she said she wasn’t aware of any visitors who, because Snowbowl is closed, decided to cancel their trip to the area.
“There's a lot to do here so I can't point to hearing that,” she said.
Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or email@example.com