Ski area zoning was at issue in 2002 White River forest plan revision
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — While Vail Resorts may claim that Peak 6 has always been allocated for lift-served skiing, the U.S. Forest Service at one point proposed limiting Summit County ski areas to their existing boundaries.
And an unprecedented boundary adjustment that affected both the Breckenridge Nordic Center and Breckenridge Ski Area also helped set the stage for the current expansion proposal on Peak 6.
The preferred alternative (Alternative D) in a draft version of the White River National Forest plan released in the late 1990s under then-forest supervisor Martha Ketelle would have taken Peak 6 out of the ski area prescription. That proposal was based in part on concern about impacts to natural resources. At the time, the EPA was very involved in the forest plan revision as a cooperating agency.
In early comments on the plan, the EPA was very specific about outlining its concerns. Even though the ski industry likes to claim that its footprint is relatively small when compared to the overall size of the White River National Forest, the EPA said ski area development has the single-largest impact to alpine tundra.
The EPA also raised concerns about water quality impacts resulting from erosion at ski resorts. De-forested ski runs, service roads and other activities associated with industrial-strength skiing all contribute to degrading important headwaters streams across the forest. According to the EPA, the Forest Service was having a hard time meeting existing water quality standards in the forest plan, even without the potential for new expansions.
It’s also well known that the development of ski trails seriously fragments habitat for small mammals and birds, and also allow for greater penetration of invasive species of all sorts. Most recently, a study in Switzerland documented significant impacts to Alpine grouse from developed winter recreation activities.
Based on all that, the White River forest put forth a preferred alternative based on the best available scientific information, just as federal environmental laws and agency regulations require. Alternative D had a strong resource protection theme in all areas, not just in the realm of ski areas. But that was only the beginning of the story.
“It was a big deal for the ski industry, on the biggest ski forest in the country, to make a decision like that,” said Ed Ryberg, who at the time was in charge of administering the Forest Service winter sports program. “They didn’t do their political homework,” Ryberg said, referring to former White River forest supervisor Martha Ketelle and regional forester Lyle Laverty.
The decision set off a political firestorm, with trade groups like the National Ski Areas Association and Colorado Ski Country USA, who perceived the draft preferred alternative as heavy yoke on the industry.
Politics also figured heavily into the equation, as the ski industry tapped its connection with Scott McInnis, who represented much of the West Slope in Congress at the time, and Jim Lyons, the political appointee in charge of the Forest Service at the Department of Agriculture, a strong ally of the ski industry.
The overall plan revision went into a holding pattern, while the ski industry’s lobbying machine cranked into overdrive.
“That’s when I got involved,” Ryberg said, explaining that he was brought into the process to help revise the section of the plan dealing with ski areas. The goal was to maintain the spirit of what Ketelle had proposed, but to balance natural resource protection with the perceived needs of the ski areas and the anticipated growth in skier demand.
Ryberg said he worked with each ski area to identify what was important to them. Ultimately, the Forest Service issued a supplemental environmental study that showed the potential for increased skier demand based on projected population growth in the Front Range. In the final version of the plan, the I-70 corridor was identified as the key to meeting that demand. No new expansion areas were allocated in Pitkin County.
The final tweaks to the White River plan also have implications in Keystone, where big chunks of Independence Mountain were allocated for lift-served skiing in the final version, so when Vail Resorts says Peak 6 is the last expansion in Breckenridge, you can be sure they are already thinking about enlarging Keystone as they seek to carve out an ever-larger piece of the Colorado ski market.
Another key piece of the Peak 6 expansion puzzle came a few years later, in 2006, when a back-room deal saw several hundred acres of land go from the Breckenridge Nordic Center to Breckenridge Ski Area. Both permittees are administered under the same national forest “zoning.”
The Forest Service called the deal a boundary adjustment; Nordic center operator Gene Dayton said the agreement was in the best interest of the public, and ski resort officials said they were in the early stages of master planning for the Peak 6 area.
“What we were looking for was a good tie-in to the Peak 6 area,” Sramek said. “We were looking for a piece that would make access and egress (to and from Peak 6) possible. It accommodates ski-over access from Peak 7 to a bottom terminal,” said Rick Sramek, at the time vice president of mountain operations for the ski area.
Then-district ranger Rick Newton made the change as a non-significant permit amendment, which enabled him to make the change without any public notice at all.
“The terrain is better suited to alpine skiing,” Newton said at the time, characterizing it as steeper terrain that wasn’t being used under the Nordic center’s permit. Newton said the terrain added to the resort’s permit area at the base of Peak 6 would give better access for any type of proposed lift-served skiing.
While the Forest Service downplayed the change, EPA analysts said the move was unprecedented.
“Off hand, I don’t know of a reason to expand a permit boundary separate from a specific proposal to expand the ski area where the need for additional terrain could be fully evaluated with public input,” said Phil Strobel, a National Environmental Policy Act expert.
Colorado Wild, a Forest Service and ski industry watchdog group. voiced more outspoken criticism, calling it part of a pattern of incrementally piece-mealing decisions to avoid taking the hard look required by federal environmental laws.
“When an agency action facilitates other actions, the impacts need to be analyzed as an indirect effect,” said Colorado Wild executive director Ryan Demmy Bidwell.
A change from cross country to lift-served is a significant change in use, considering that alpine lifts and ski trails require wide, clear-cut trails, he said. “This should have been done as part of the master plan, giving the public a chance to comment,” he said.
“A non-significant amendment doesn’t lead to any change in use on the landscape,” he added.