Just over 100 years ago, in March 1915 to be exact, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Term Occupancy Act, a law that would eventually shape how and where we ski in the United States.
Also known as the Occupancy Permits Act of 1915, the law provided a permitting process for summer homes and recreational resorts within National Forests. It didn’t even mention winter.
From Water Rights to Ski Resorts
While we don’t often associate pioneers or the settlement of Southern California with today’s sometimes lavish and extensive ski resorts, those of us who live to slide on snow should be thanking the earliest Los Angeles boosters.
For what started as forest reserves in 1891, to protect the Los Angeles watershed, became National Forests in 1907. Teeming with extravagant beauty, the forests quickly became important for more than drinking water as early Westerners discovered mountain recreation.
Most were content with day trips, journeying to the forests to hike, picnic and relax. But being pioneers, there were those who wanted more, who wanted to stay longer and live in the natural reserves. Under pressure to provide private home development and overnight accommodations, Congress passed the Term Occupancy Act.
Yet even that did not satisfy as people began turning to the forests for winter fun, as well. By the 1920’s the Forest Service was partnering with local ski clubs to develop rudimentary ski areas under the terms of the Occupancy Act.
Fast forward to 2015, and you’ll find 122 ski areas, covering 182,095 acres, operating on US Forest Service (USFS) lands.
This past winter, the Forest Service unveiled a campaign to promote year-round recreation in the national forests, and greater public awareness of the role played by the service, and its parent agency, the Department of Agriculture, in providing outdoor recreation.
While most of us are aware of the National Park Service, within the Department of the Interior, it’s easy to forget that many of the mountains upon which we ski, especially in Colorado and other western states, are also public lands.
Featuring the hashtag #ItsAllYours, the campaign aims to get us all outdoors, skiing, hiking, biking, picnicking, climbing and camping.
That is, playing.
And given the breadth of our forests, and the associated National Grasslands, there’s plenty of room to play, and roam.
Room to Roam
In addition to nearly 200,000 acres of permitted skiing, National Forests and Grasslands offer 143,000 miles of hiking trails, 4,300 campgrounds, 1,200 boating sites and 136 Scenic Byways covering 9,126 miles.
All together these forests and grasslands contain 152,222 miles of recreational trails and 19,964 recreation sites across 193 million acres in 43 states and Puerto Rico.
A Lasting Legacy
Not all National Forests and Grasslands are in the West and 7 of 10 Americans actually live within 100 miles of Forest Service land. Winter and summer, these forests are our treasures.
When the USFS rolled out this campaign at the World Alpine Ski Championships in Vail, they chose to launch on an international stage. Smoky the Bear and Forest Service staff rode the gondolas and mingled with spectators providing information about our unique national forests.
Rangers also met with kids, providing outdoor education and Junior Snow Ranger patches.
For 100 years, the USFS has cooperated with local residents and ski resort developers to make sure we all can play, winter or summer, in the woods.
They are proud of their legacy and we should be, too.
So when you hit the trails or set up your tent in a forest campground this summer, remember those early California settlers who started out protecting their water and ended up protecting millions of acres, where we can all go, and play.
For for more information, and some inspiration, visit It’s All Yours.
Many thanks to Rachel D. Kline for helping me understand the history of skiing on the national forests. Kline is the author of “Winter Recreation on the National Forests, 1905-1969.” USDA Forest Service Heritage Stewardship Group, 2014.
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