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Remarks of Mike Dombeck

Remarks of Mike Dombeck, USDA Forest Service

Ski Industry Week

December 3, 1997

  Introduction

It’s great to be with you today. I’ll talk only for a short while because I’d like to leave plenty of time for you to ask questions and to share your ideas with me. I will talk about the growth of recreation on national forests and grasslands, collaboration between the ski industry and the Forest Service, and the future of recreation on public lands.

Change and Growth

Both of our businesses have undergone change in the last few years. In your case, changes include consolidation in the ski industry, the aging of the baby boomers, the advent of snowboarding, and the promise of the "echo boomers," –the children of the baby boomers who are the large market of tomorrow.

For the Forest Service, change has included the decline of timber harvesting and the explosion of recreation on public lands. The growth of recreation represents one of the major changes in public use and public expectations for the national forests and grasslands.

In 1980, 560 million recreational visits were made to national forests. By 1996, that figure grew to 860 million. By the year 2,000 it may exceed 1 billion. With the leadership of people like Lyle Laverty, the former director of Forest Service Recreation who is now Rocky Mountain Regional Forester, the Forest Service has become the world’s largest supplier of outdoor recreation. Annually, over 800 million visits on national forests and grasslands represent almost 50% of all recreation visits to the nation’s public lands.

Last week, I was briefed on the findings of a survey prepared by the Recreation Roundtable. One of the questions asked how many people could identify a specific Forest Service recreation site. You will be pleased to know that 90% of the downhill skiers reported awareness of at least one Forest Service site. This is up 18% from last year!

Our partnership and joint marketing efforts such as SKI US are directly attributable to the increased public awareness of skiing on national forests. Today, almost 60% of U.S. skier visits occur on Forest Service managed lands. That so many downhill skiers knew they were on Forest Service lands should come as no surprise. Over 31 million skiers visit Forest Service lands each year. On-snow activities on national forests produced over $10 billion in revenue last year.

Economic significance

Ten billion dollars. It baffles me that the Department of Agriculture tracks the value of soybeans, corn, or wheat to the penny by the day, yet, rarely is recreation and tourism on federal lands understood as a revenue generator. Instead it has been perceived as an amenity–something extra that we are privileged to enjoy. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change.

Just last year, over $12 billion dollars was generated to local communities through wildlife and fish related recreation on Forest Service lands. That’s $12 billion in revenue that small communities can use to build schools, hospitals, ball parks, and more. In total, each year, recreation on Forest Service managed lands contributes $112 billion dollars to state economies and local communities.

Recreation and tourism provide a trade surplus of $22 billion dollars; the country’s single largest positive trade sector.

As an industry, it is in your interest to demonstrate to policymakers, Members of Congress, and community leaders the significance of recreation to economic stability, and to community prosperity and well-being.

Recreation not only improves the economic condition of local communities. The Recreation Fee Demonstration Project will enable us to return more revenues, in order to meet growing recreation demands of the American people. The revenue will enable us to address the backlog of maintenance needs, improve and expand interpretative programs, upgrade recreational facilities, and reduce vandalism. In short, revenues from the Recreation Fee Demo project will be returned to the sites from which they were collected in order to improve the overall recreation experience. The fees are modest, and in fact 99% of Forest Service recreation lands will remain free to all.

Shifting Values and Uses

The growth of recreation on public lands is a major shift in society’s priority for public lands. The decline of timber harvesting is another major shift. In the past ten years, timber harvest on federal lands has declined from approximately 11 billion to 4 billion board feet. Federal lands that used to supply 25% of the nations soft wood saw timber today supply about 10%.

In the past, we were sometimes criticized for seeming to value commodity production over other uses. To be sure, we also developed world class research capabilities, a substantial State and Private Forestry program, and provided multiple benefits. But timber seemed to drive our budgets, our incentive and reward systems; it even drove a fair amount of our work in wildlife and fish habitat, watershed restoration, and recreation projects. That is changing.

Back in April, my leadership team and I identified the following priorities for the agency.

The Forest Service is the Proctor and Gamble of outdoor recreation, with SKI US some of the strongest "outdoor recreation brands" in the world. Dramatic growth in demand presents us with significant challenges and opportunities.

To a large extent, our challenges and opportunities overlap. For example, I was told how awhile back, Andy Daly of Vail heard customers complain about the unhealthy look of aspen stands visible from I-70 driving into Vail.

Well, we looked into it and found that indeed, many stands were in trouble. Years of fire suppression had left the stands highly susceptible to insect and disease infestation. We will probably need to do some mechanical treatment and prescribed fire to encourage new growth, so those wonderful trees that define the area can thrive again, for the long term. However 20 years go, the public told us not to touch those trees.

Now, we are learning to find a better balance to more effectively manage for a healthier resource and to better meet the needs of our customers. In your industry, this is akin to the transformation from narrowly defined ski areas to comprehensive mountain resorts.

Partnerships

As you are committed to providing your customers with a quality experience at your resorts, so too are we looking to promote – and seek your help to promote – the full array of recreation products and services that we offer the American public.

Forest Service Programs such as Watchable Wildlife, Hike with a Ranger, and the hundreds of other interpretive programs complement the experience of visitors to your mountain resorts.

Cooperative efforts and partnerships such as the merging of the Forest Information Center and REI headquarters in Seattle saves customers’ time by making forest information far more accessible. Ultimately this attracts more people to forest visits and recreation, and at a net savings to the taxpayer! These are they type of cooperative efforts that I hope you will help me identify, so that we may better meet our mutual objectives.

Partnerships demonstrate that state and federal agencies, conservationists, and the recreation industry can work together toward common goals. I call this commitment to working with people collaborative stewardship. It is exemplified by dedicated Forest Service employees who go the extra mile, and by professionals like you that help to stretch federal dollars while improving recreational experiences on federal lands. Creating successful partnerships takes creativity, patience, and a willingness to take risks and do things a little differently than in the past.

I hope that we will use opportunities such as the 2002 Winter Olympics at Snowbasin to showcase the many successful partnerships between the ski industry and the Forest Service, and to help "bring home" the benefits of collaborative stewardship.

Conservation Challenges and Opportunities

Dramatic growth in recreation poses other challenges. The land is the foundation of the outdoor experience, and our first priority must be to promote environmentally responsible recreation use of public lands. There should be no greater supporters of conservation than public land recreationists. More so than for almost any other user group, the quality of the recreation experience depends on the quality of the land.

The Ski Industry Week theme is "rediscover the sport, rediscover the passion." I think that entirely appropriate. As people look for more and more places to escape from the tug and pull of day to day stress, they look increasingly to recreate on public lands. Some come to connect with nature. Many come to ski. Some to enjoy the companionship of friends and family. And to paraphrase Huck Finn, some come "just to flat out get away." For whatever reason, they come. And when they do, they expect healthy land. As more people value the recreational opportunities available to them, they will learn to tread more lightly on the land.

As industry leaders, you have both a terrific opportunity and a mandate to promote a conservation ethic among the millions of Americans who recreate on public lands. Given the number of young skiers and snow-boarders who come to your resorts, we have an excellent opportunity to develop conservation education partnerships among schools, mountain resorts, and the Forest Service.

The point I want to leave you with is simple. If we work together, we can improve the quality of people’s recreational experience, we can deepen their appreciation for public lands, and we can instill in them the need to respect, value, and protect the land.

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Title: Dombeck Speech, Ski Industry Week
Author: Chris Wood
Date_last_modified: 12/8/97