Will social media play a role in the outcome of a classic ski town showdown?
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Like almost everything else in the information age, a battle over a proposed ski area expansion in Breckenridge, Colorado, will be partially waged on the web. Both supporters and opponents of the plan to build a new lift and clear-cut new trails on Peak 6 are signing up on Facebook pages to take a stand — or at least to stay informed about the issue.
Breckenridge Ski Area first proposed the expansion a couple of years ago. In the initial round of formal Forest Service documents, the resort and the agency said the new terrain is needed to meet demand for intermediate terrain at what has been the country’s most-visited ski resort the past few seasons. Breckenridge has averaged about 1.5 million skier visits per season.
Critics of the expansion are concerned about ski area growth in general, loss of access to nearby backcountry skiing opportunities, as well as potential impacts to natural resources; lynx, elk and healthy old-growth forests high in the Tenmile Range.
The area in question is within the ski resort’s permitted area and was zoned for lift-served skiing by the 2002 White River National Forest plan.
The scoping notice elicited a flood of public comments, many from Breckenridge-area residents concerned about quality of life issues associated with Peak 6 and ski area growth in general. Parking, childcare and housing were some of the concerns mentioned in numerous comments. The original scoping documents are online here.
Since the scoping notice, the Forest Service said it has been working with the resort to develop a less extensive Peak 6 “Lite” proposal — read about it here.
In response, former ski area chief Lucy Kay formed a community task force that discussed the issues and developed an agreement designed to mitigate those impacts. The resort, the town of Breckenridge and Summit County recently signed the memorandum of understanding. Click here to read about the MOU.
At the same time, the proposal was under study by the U.S. Forest Service in a lengthy and oft-delayed process that will result in a draft environmental impact statement, scheduled to be released this year. The draft EIS is a document guided by the National Environmental Policy Act, which obligates federal agencies to take a hard look at projects on public lands, and to develop alternatives, disclosing the impacts — as well as potential mitigation — for those alternatives. In general, NEPA guides agencies toward choosing the least-damaging alternative.
Release of the draft EIS will mark the start of another public comment period. The Support Peak 6 Facebook page is “dedicated to garnering community support” for the expansion plan. Here’s a blurb from the page: “As many avid Breck skiers and riders know, we could use more terrain to spread out on busier days. Peak 6 would offer a variety of terrain, from intermediate to expert, over about 500 acres and served by one lift.”
The resort is also distributing a postcard in the community, with a dedicated “email@example.com” e-mail address and the URL for the Facebook page.
The idea for the resort obviously is to muster a list of people to offer comments of support on the project when the draft EIS is released to counteract the long list of mostly critical comments in response to the scoping notice.
The Save Peak 6 page features links to articles about the proposed expansion in newspaper and websites, as well as galleries of backcountry skiing photos from the area. Here’s a blurb: “Hundreds of acres of healthy spruce/fir will die for an expansion that often won’t help crowding. When is enough, enough?”
However, it’s important to remember is that a ski area proposal is not a popularity contest. The Forest Service doesn’t tally up votes and make its decision based on that. The NEPA process, by design, is almost ritualistic in methodically addressing issues as prescribed by various Forest Service regulations and federal environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
Hitting a “like” button on a website doesn’t really help the Forest Service evaluate a proposal. A better idea would be to take the time to read through at least parts of the EIS when it’s released and making comments that relate to specific issues and concerns:
- Does the analysis adequate?
- Does it reflect the latest scientific information on lynx conservation, for example?
- Does it take into account how ski resort economics have changed since the proposal was first developed?
Those are just a few examples. There’s a lot at stake financially for the ski area, and emotionally for some of the opponents, but it would great to see both sides focus on science and facts as they make their case on the project.