Op-Ed: Plan for vastly expanded summer recreation at Breckenridge Ski Area deserve close scrutiny

Proposal includes zip lines, high alpine 4WD tours and summer operations of the Imperial Chair

Vail Resorts wants to ramp up summer recreation at Breckenridge Ski Area.

Vail Resorts wants to ramp up summer recreation at Breckenridge Ski Area.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Vail Resorts wants to significantly expand the scope of summer activities at Breckenridge Ski Resort on lands used under permit from the U.S. Forest Service. That means more chairlifts could soon be humming all year long at what is already one of the busiest ski mountains in the world.

The proposal includes zip lines, tree canopy tours and even four-wheel drive tours to remote sections of the Tenmile Range — along with plenty of new construction at the summit of Peak 8 and around the Peak 7 warming hut.

According to the proposal, the resort currently lacks “adventure or thrill-based experiences,” and “interpretive programs that offer an educational experience for users seeking to learn more about the environment.”

The summer improvements plan also includes restoration activities at the ski area that would be incorporated into the plan after the public has had a chance to offer initial comments during a formal scoping phase for the project, the first step in an in-depth Environmental Impact Study that will evaluate impacts.

Vail Resorts last year announced a big push into on-mountain summer recreation, seeking to bolster year-round revenues in the dicey seasonal ski business. The company may also, at least subconsciously, be thinking about climate change, which threatens consistent winter operations. Similar activities have also been proposed at Vail Ski Area.

In Breckenridge the proposal is likely to re-ignite a healthy debate about the overall capacity for tourism and recreation in the town and the Upper Blue Valley. Vail Resorts may once again argue that the new facilities won’t increase overall visitation, but the proposed improvements are on the scale of a full-fledged summer adventure destination.

It’s very likely that full development of the summer plan would increase pressure on the region’s already tapped-out infrastructure, including transportation and water. On a larger scale, there will be questions about impacts to high alpine ecosystems, and even the project’s overall carbon footprint.

Let’s hope the White River National Forest will take the required hard look at the proposal and develop some innovative alternatives to minimize environmental and social impacts.

While it’s easy to criticize the proposal as an attempt to create a theme park atmosphere in the mountain environment, the plan deserves a fair hearing by the community. And the community must feel comfortable that the Forest Service will require the resort’s hired-gun environmental consultants complete a thoughtful and science-based analysis.

As a baseline, the agency and the resort company should work together to develop a carbon-neutral version of the proposal, meaning that the development wouldn’t result in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

While it may not be possible to achieve a carbon-neutral goal, it would be a good benchmark against which to measure other alternatives. Vail Resorts likes to talk the green talk; the Forest Service should make the company walk the walk when it proposes massive new developments on public lands. Guidance from the Obama administration makes it clear that tackling global warming is a national priority; federal agencies must now really scrutinize proposed projects in the context of climate change.

Along those same lines, the agency must make sure that the restoration component doesn’t take a back seat to the new facilities. There’s been plenty of environmental degradation at Breckenridge Ski Resort over the past few decades, all of which should be mitigated before Vail Resorts is permitted to add insult to injury.

The Forest Service also has to ask tough questions about the overall carrying capacity of the Upper Blue Valley. The agency can’t simply avoid the issue by saying the new projects are within the resort’s existing footprint, Any site-specific impacts will ripple beyond the resort’s boundaries due to the fact that the region is already at the threshold of its carrying capacity, given the enormous number of tourists, activities and special events.

With the Upper Blue Valley already near bursting on busy summer weekends, it would make sense for the Forest Service to analyze the proposal on a broader regional scale, asking, for example, if it wouldn’t make more sense to steer summer business to Copper Mountain, where existing lodges and restaurants are under-used in the summer.

In short, the Forest Service must hold Vail Resorts accountable for how the proposal will affect natural resources across the wider region, including wildlife habitat and forest health. And citizens of Summit County need to cover the agency’s back, making sure that Vail Resorts manages national forest lands in the public interest.

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