House Joint Resolution 13-1044 clears House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee

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From the Sterling Journal-Advocate (Marianne Goodland):

The committee unanimously approved House Joint Resolution 13-1004, which encourages the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service to withdraw a 2012 directive that requires ski areas to turn over their water rights, without compensation, for federal lands leased from the Forest Service.

HJR 1004 points out that federal law requires federal agencies to abide by the water laws of the states in which federal lands are located. However, according to resolution sponsor Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling), the Forest Service drafted the 2012 directive in violation of that law, known as the McCarran Act.

The National Ski Areas Association filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service over the directive, and a Denver District Court judge recently ruled in favor of the NSAA, but only on procedural grounds and not on the substance of the directive. According to testimony in Monday’s hearing, the judge told the Forest Service that “they didn’t do it right” when they issued the directive without public input, a violation of federal administrative procedures.

Meanwhile, here’s the USFS release about the public meetings this spring (Chris Strebig):

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service announced today a public process to develop a directive regarding water rights on National Forest System lands that have ski areas and other permitted uses. The Forest Service plans to begin the public process this spring.

“Establishing an inclusive process on this important issue will help meet long-term goals,” said Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Daniel Jirón. “Maintaining the water with the land will ensure a vibrant ski industry, and resilient and healthy national forests and mountain communities into the future.”

Regional Forester Jirón testified today before the Colorado General Assembly House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver. The Committee scheduled the hearing to address water rights and ski areas brought up through Colorado House Bill 13-1013 and Colorado House Joint Resolution 13-1004.

On December 19, 2012, the United States District Court for the District of Colorado in National Ski Areas Association, Inc. v. United States Forest Service ruled to vacate the 2012 Forest Service directive on ski area water rights. The Court declined to rule on the substance of the Forest Service directive, but indicated the Agency should proceed with public notice and comment for this type of directive.

The Forest Service Directive System consists of manuals and handbooks that codify policy and provide administrative direction for Forest Service employees to manage National Forest System lands.

“Together, we can find solutions that support a strong ski industry, keep the water with the land to sustain local communities, and ensure the long-term viability of this unsurpassed winter recreational experience,” said Jirón. “We think it is a good idea to engage the public and communities to map out next steps on this issue.”

The National Forest System lands comprise 192 million acres of forest and grasslands in 43 states. The Forest Service estimates that downhill skiers and snowboarders at 22 ski areas on national forests in Colorado contribute approximately $1.5 billion annually to Colorado’s economy.

More 2013 Colorado legislation coverage here.

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