By Bob Berwyn
In the latest round of poker over a proposed ski area expansion at Breckenridge, the resort this week backed away from its clumsy bluff to withdraw from a multiparty agreement aimed at addressing some of the potential social issues associated with ski resort growth.
What struck me was that the company reversed course without any apparent reference to the well-documented earlier threats, which at least one respected member of the business community likened to blackmail.
At the same time, the resort said it wouldn’t pursue a restaurant as part of the expansion, partly as a gesture of appeasement to town business owners, and partly as a strategically timed move to show some give a few days in advance of a town-hosted open house on the expansion proposal — no doubt after the Vail Resorts bean counters frantically scribbled calculations on exactly how much revenue such a facility would generate.
The resort hopes that giving up the restaurant will be seen as a discarded ace, but in reality, it’s just a throw -away deuce of spades — another bluff, if you will. Giving up the restaurant may satisfy a few grumbling local restaurateurs, but isn’t very significant in the big picture. It’s hard to imagine skiers on the new Peak 6 terrain streaming all the way back into town for lunch; they’ll just end up back at the Peak 7 or Peak 8 base, which is where the resort wants them to begin with.
And if the Peak 6 terrain is to be built, a small restaurant wouldn’t really add much to the development footprint — maybe just a couple of acres more of tree-clearing at the site. Still, the resort may be feeling a bit desperate as it sees public sentiment tilting toward a down-sized version of the expansion that would reduce impacts to natural resources considerably.
For as often as Vail Resorts has played this game, you’d think they’d understand by now that the Forest Service doesn’t make a final decision on a project like this based on public opinion — at least not on the surface. For all the sound and fury, the public debate is much like what you might hear from a kibitzing crowd, watching as the last two players at the table turn their cards face-up, one by one.
There’s no doubt that this is a high-stakes game because the outcome will determine an almost irretrievable commitment of valuable public lands that belong to all the people of the United States. It’s always good to remember that fact, and the Forest Service should frequently be reminded that its decisions on these types of projects have to be in the greater public interest.
Let’s stick with the poker analogy a bit longer. To some degree, the deck is stacked, because Vail Resorts has already teamed up with the dealer — the U.S. Forest Service. Between them, they hold nearly all the aces, and, they’ve been able to set the rules of the game by shoe-horning the proposal into a purpose and need statement that’s now several years old and based on an economy that no longer exists. By doing that, they created several new jokers in the deck, just for themselves.
The agency and the resort might argue that the recession hasn’t dampened skier demand, and there may be some truth to that. Breckenridge once again tallied about 1.5 million skiers for the season, and the National Ski Areas Association this week announced that skier visits nationwide set a new record.
From that standpoint alone, an expansion at Breckenridge can probably be justified, since the resort serves as many skiers and riders as Vail on about half the terrain, and about 50 percent more skiers than Copper Mountain, which has the most acreage of any Summit County resort.
Maybe the resort and the Forest Service should have left it at that when they cooked up their rationale for the expansion. Simple enough to say — and for people to understand — that a few hundred more acres will give everybody on the mountain a bit more elbow room at least for a couple of seasons. As a skier who appreciates wide-open spaces, that argument resonates with me.
It may not fit into the Forest Service playbook, but I think a lot of people would have respected it much more had the resort simply said, “Hey, we’re part of a profit-driven company and in order to meet our fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, we have to grow in all directions, by adding lodging, retail, dining, selling more lift tickets and lessons, and yes, by adding more terrain.”
But things got complicated when the resort started to claim — with a poker face — that the expansion won’t attract new skiers. I don’t think anyone bought that line from the very beginning. And in the end, the draft environmental study for the project suggests that the new Peak 6 terrain will increase the rate of skier-visit growth significantly over the no-action alternative.
And it actually boggles the mind to think anyone might believe that a modest 500-acre expansion will make a noticeable difference on days where there are 20,000 people on the mountain. It won’t. The main trails will feel just as crowded, and the lines at existing lifts will be just as long. As so many locals have said, the resort could do much more to alleviate crowding by making improvements to terrain that’s already within the existing development footprint.
But all the haggling over some of the minutiae of the MOU and the restaurant are playing into Vail’s hands, because it all deflects attention away from some of the very real fundamental issues at stake. There’s valuable wildlife habitat up on the slopes of Peak 6, a commodity that’s in ever-shorter supply on the flanks of the Tenmile Range. There are streams that for now are unaffected by erosion and silt. There are healthy stands of spruce and fir with near old-growth conditions in some areas.
And there is the over-riding question of when is a resort big enough? From everything I’ve heard, that was the general gist of many of the public comments at two previous open house meetings held in Breckenridge and Golden.
I’m hot holding my breath waiting for the answers, but the questions are worth keeping in mind with an approaching town-sponsored open house and a looming public comment deadline.