Forest Service set to make final call on controversial ski area project
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal agencies are on track to release a final environmental study for a controversial ski area expansion at Breckenridge sometime in June, according to White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
Click here to see all previous Summit Voice coverage of the Peak 6 process.
Most recently, the Forest Service submitted a biological study focusing mainly on lynx to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a required consultation under the Endangered Species Act.
Within 120 days, the Fish and Wildlife Service must respond with a formal biological opinion that evaluates and discloses impacts to listed species. The deadline is in early June, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is on track to meet that deadline, said Grand Junction-based USFWS biologist Kurt Broderdorp.
Since the two agencies have been communicating about the Peak 6 project for several years, Broderdorp said the Forest Service study didn’t include any groundbreaking information.
“It’s pretty straigthforward,” Broderdorp said, explaining that his agency must determine whether the proposed action will result in any significant adverse effects to lynx, the powder-loving wild cat that often wanders in the same terrain favored by Colorado skiers — shady, snow-coveredhigh-elevation slopes with thick clumps of spruce and fir trees.
Fitzwilliams said after the Fish and Wildlife Service determines whether it concurs with the Forest Service’s biological findings, a final decision should be forthcoming shortly.
The ongoing talks between the two agencies have involved finding ways to address potential negative effects on lynx in a meaningful way. Fitzwilliams said that, rather than focusing narrowly on the project’s site-specific impacts, his approach has been to take a broader look at the needs of the species.
Site-specific mitigation tried at other ski areas has not been shown to be successful, and Fitzwilliams suggested that for Peak 6, the Forest Service is considering a suite of off-site and long-term mitigation measures including habitat improvements and protection of critical movement corridors.
Whatever the decision by the federal agencies is, the project will likely remain controversial, as a segment of the local community, as well as conservation groups, have all but vowed to fight the expansion to the bitter end.
Impacts to lynx have been at the crux of controversies over several ski area projects, most notably Vail’s Blue Sky Basin expansion, which became a symbolic focal point for a bitter battle over ski area expansion and development. The Vail proposal, called Cat 3 during the early phases, was met with activist protests, including a blockade of access roads, culminating with a dangerous arson attack against on-mountain facilities at the Eagle County ski resort.
The Peak 6 proposal is much smaller than the Vail project was, involving construction of one new lift and a few hundred acres of new terrain. The resort says the expansion is aimed at providing more intermediate terrain that will help spread out crowds on peak days without significantly increasing total visitation at the country’s busiest resort.
Critics have questioned that claim from the beginning, charging that the Peak 6 plan is nothing more than a marketing ploy, under the motto that there’s nothing sexier to skiers and snowboarders than a new peak.
Divisive and destructive?
Although the Peak 6 proposal is much smaller that Vail’s earlier project, there are similarities. Once again, Vail is proposing an expansion that cuts into the heart of good habitat for a rare species that’s on the brink of survival. And, like the Cat 3 fiasco, the Breckenridge Peak 6 plan has divided the local community since it was introduced at a scoping period that elicited several hundred critical comments from community members.
Even before that, the Forest Service set the stage for the proposal by adjusting the ski area boundary between the resort and the adjacent Nordic center in a behind-the-scenes process with no public notice. At the time, EPA environmental policy experts said making a boundary change that fundamentally changes use of the area without public input was unprecedented.
The public comments on the initial Peak 6 proposal weren’t primarily about lynx. With Breckenridge at the peak of its development bubble, many concerns centered on so-called social issues, including, traffic, housing, parking, healthcare and access to close-in backcountry and side-country skiing opportunities. Impacts to healthy high-elevation spruce-fir forests in the context of the pine beetle epidemic were also raised as a concern.
The public debate encapsulated the larger issues of finding a path to sustainable development in mountain resort communities, as some residents expressed a fundamental concern about killing the proverbial goose.
In response to the scoping comments, former Breckenridge ski area chief Lucy Kay formed a community task force that grappled with those issues for more than a year before developing an agreement aimed at addressing at least some of the concerns.
The deal came too late to be incorporated into the Forest Service draft environmental study, and at one point, Vail Resorts even threatened — clumsily — to withdraw from the agreement if the town didn’t get on board with the full-scale expansion plan. The resort later backed away from that stance.
Last summer’s release of the draft environmental impact statement marked the last major milestone for the process, with a somewhat scaled-back expansion proposal that lessens the overall development footprint to some degree.