White River forest supervisor extends comment period, says he’s open to new ideas on alternatives for Breckenridge ski area expansion proposal
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Acknowledging the complex issues associated with a proposed ski area expansion at Breckenridge Resort, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams this week extended the public comment period for another month, through August 26, and said he’s open to new ideas to help shape a final version of the plan later this year. The draft environmental impact statement and commenting information is online here.
Fitzwilliams made his remarks July 14 at the start of a hiking tour of the proposed expansion area, where about 40 people gathered to learn more about the plans, and especially a scaled-back alternative that shrinks the footprint and the impacts of the proposed expansion. The group included ski resort leaders, Forest Service winter sports rangers, EPA wetlands experts, wildlife biologists and ski area planning consultants, as well as interested residents and skiers. A resident of the Peak 7 neighborhood in Breckenridge captured the hike with a mobile iPad app. You can visit that map online here.
The hike started at the top of the Peak 7 chair (Independence Superchair), then headed north toward what would be the top terminal of a smaller lift. closer to the resort’s existing footprint, under the down-sized version of the expansion plan. From there, the group hiked to within a few hundred feet of the Peak 6 summit, where Breckenridge would like to put a lift, then down the north flank of the proposed expansion terrain and back along what would be a collector trail returning to the base of the new lift.
Breckenridge resort officials first proposed the Peak 6 terrain pod, a few years ago, drawing a slew of critical comments and questions from residents concerned about impacts to wildlife, forests, parking and housing, as well as congestion and overall quality of life in the town. Background stories are online at this Summit Voice archive.
A smaller group of residents, business owners and Breckenridge skiers supported the plan from the start, saying that additional terrain at the resort will boost business, and that a rising tide of visitors to the ski area helps float all the local boats.
Breckenridge resort officials have claimed from the start that the expansion is not aimed at increasing total visits, but at trying to alleviate peak-day crowding on the ski area’s existing intermediate terrain. As part of a negotiating process with local stakeholders, Vail Resorts agreed that it wouldn’t seek to expand beyond Peak 6 unless asked by the local community — but the resort hasn’t signed that agreement yet and recently threatened to pull out of the deal unless the town council backs the full-scale version of the plan.
Two short videos featuring ski area consultant Travis Beck who helped develop the draft plan describing some of the proposed lifts and trails.
After hiking to near the far northern edge of the proposed Peak 6 expansion area, it’s clear that the new terrain would bite off another big chunk of the Tenmile Range. Critics of the expansion say the ski area has already claimed more than enough of this linear mountain range, but the topography of the region dictates that, if the resort is to expand, this is the only way to go. The area around and above treeline is wild and feels untouched, but below the narrow spruce fir belt the area is not as pristine as some of the expansion critics claim. There’s been plenty of logging in the area, with patch clearcuts visible to the north and east. Some of those existing logging roads would be used to access the expansion area for construction.
During the site visit, many of the same questions resurfaced: Will the new terrain really help address the stated purpose and need of the project by alleviating crowding on existing terrain on peak days? Resort officials have said that the new terrain wouldn’t in and of itself cause a big jump in skier days, but the draft environmental study suggests that, with the expansion, skier days will grow at about 2 percent per year. Without the expansion, that growth is expected to stay under 1 percent.
There were also many questions — and no good answers — about the nature of the terrain. Resort officials say Peak 6 is aimed at adding intermediate terrain to meet the bulk of skier demand. But some people question whether the proposed Peak 6 trails are truly intermediate. The ski area’s recent move to reclassify some of its existing terrain didn’t help matters, giving critics more ammo to claim that Vail Resorts and the Forest Service are colluding to manipulate the terrain categories to make the proposed project fit the stated purpose and need.
Resort officials, the Forest Service and project consultants with SE Group said that construction in the high alpine zone would include the latest landscape-sensitive techniques, for example lifting the thin, fragile top layer of tundra aside, then replacing it after the towers and unloading stations for the lift are complete. They used the construction of the Montezuma Chair at A-Basin as an example of a project that was light on the landscape.
But the fact is that any construction impacts in this zone are very difficult. And, according to an EPA analysis of the 2002 White River land use plan, developed skiing already accounts for more impacts to tundra than any other single activity on the forest.
Perhaps one of the biggest concerns about the Peak 6 project are related to water quality in Barton Creek and Cucumber Creek. A long collector trail is planned to funnel skiers and riders back to the bottom of a new lift. The catwalk would be built on a side-hill, requiring extensive cut-and-fill. Right now, there are few sources of erosion and sediment on the lower slopes of Peak 6. Healthy forest and forested wetlands filter the water and attenuate runoff. Even will all the recent rains, there was no sign of muddy runoff water as we hiked along the route of the proposed return catwalk.
Once it is built, it will become a constant source of pollution. Despite promises and assurances that the runoff will be contained with best management practices, the reality is very different. There is not a single forest service road, ski trail or catwalk on the White River National Forest that doesn’t contribute significant sediment loads to watersheds. There are numerous examples where smaller streams do not meet forest water quality standards because of the runoff from nearby roads and trails.
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