Goodbye, free skiing

High cost of grooming leads to change at Howelsen

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— Cross-country skiers using the groomed trails at the city-owned Howelsen Hill ski area will need to purchase passes for the first time this winter.

The City Council voted unanimously earlier this month to accept the recommendation of the Steamboat Springs Nordic Council that skiers be charged to ski the trails east of Blackmer Drive.

The $5 daily fee, or $50 for a season pass, would be used to offset the cost of grooming those trails with a snowcat, Dan Smilkstein of the Nordic Council said. City Rodeo and Ski Area Manager Jeff Nelson said the Howelsen ski area also will offer a family Nordic pass for $100. It would allow an adult, spouse and children in the family ages 18 and younger who are living at home to use the trails.

Trails affected by the fees include Bluffs Loop, Hakan's Spar and Emerald Meadows, which wraps around the east side of the Nordic Area. Fees also apply to the trails groomed in the softball fields and in Hobo Park.

Exempt from the pass requirement is Blackmer Drive itself and Orton's Meadow, to the west of Blackmer.

The Nordic Council, together with the city Parks and Recreation Department, spearhead the construction of new trails, such as Bluffs Loop five years ago. They were funded in part with $50,000 donated by developer Martin Hart after the construction of his Sanctuary subdivision reduced the Nordic trail system at the Steamboat Touring Center.

The Parks and Recreation Department has groomed the new trails periodically throughout the succeeding winters, but it has been the Nordic Council that has footed the annual bill of $4,000 to $5,000.

The Hart donation was not available to defray grooming costs, so the Nordic Council has relied on private donations and a portion of the receipts from Valley Passes, which give skiers access to several touring centers in the Yampa Valley. This winter's Valley Pass, priced at $245, gives skiers access to the Howelsen trails as well as the Touring Center, the Nordic Center at Lake Catamount and Vista Verde guest ranch.

"We've only been able to afford inconsistent grooming," at Howelsen, Smilkstein said.

With the cost of diesel up about 40 percent this year, the pressures on the budget are even greater, Smilkstein added.

Nelson said the city has billed the Nordic Council $100 an hour for operating the grooming machines, but the cost is higher.

"If we groomed the Nordic trails the way we really want to groom them, it could cost between $10,000 and $15,000 a winter," Nelson said. "In the past, we've groomed them on an as-needed basis. Now that we're charging the public, we're going to have to up our grooming procedures. But we'll have to wait and see how much cash flow we actually have this winter."

Nelson said he has fielded a number of calls from concerned citizens since the City Council vote. Many expressed strong feelings that they shouldn't have to pay extra to ski in a city park. However, Nelson pointed out, the Howelsen Ice Arena is part of Howelsen Park, and people don't expect to go ice skating for free. And the fees skaters pay don't cover the cost of operating the facility.

"We're just trying to help make ends meet," Nelson said. "People enjoyed cross-country skiing for free, but it's not really free. Your tax dollars are going into it. This makes it easier for people who don't ski (to accept)."

Nelson said that for families who use Howelsen often, the "all-access pass" might prove to be the best way to absorb the new Nordic trail fees. The straight Nordic passes do not include use of the lifts at Howelsen for access to upper trials. However, for $250 (before Dec. 31), a family can have unlimited access to the facilities at Howelsen, including the terrain park, Alpine skiing and use of the lifts to access Nordic skiing. An all-access pass would work particularly well for a family whose members pursue more than one sport.

An adult all-access pass is $125 before Dec. 31, and for youths ages 7 to 18, the all-access pass is $50.

Nelson said a group of volunteer Nordic ambassadors will be recruited to check for passes on Howelsen this winter. They will contact people in the parking lots who are obviously on their way to cross-country ski. The first time skiers show up without passes, they will be handed a complimentary ticket, and their names will be recorded, Nelson said. After that, they'll be directed to Howelsen Hill Lodge for a ticket.

The trails at Howelsen will not open until next month; however, season Nordic passes may be purchased at the concession stand. When trails open, the $5 daily passes likely will be sold from the candy vending machine in the fireplace room, Nelson said.

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