Pending appeals and lawsuits, resort could get two new lifts
By Bob Berwyn
*Read about continuing community concerns in this Summit Voice story.
SUMMIT COUNTY — Pending the outcome of potential appeals and lawsuits, Breckenridge Ski Area will be permitted to add about 550 acres of terrain on Peak 6, served by two new lifts.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams Tuesday announced his decision to approve the hotly contested expansion, saying it will help reduce congestion on the busy mountain. Forest Service documents on the expansion are online at the WRNF website.
Federal biologists signed off on the project even after studies showed the expansion will have an adverse effect on threatened Canada lynx. They concluded that the impacts won’t jeopardize the overall population of lynx across the U.S..
To enable the approval, the Forest Service made what it is calling a non-significant forest plan amendment that gives Breckenridge Ski Area a one-time pass for impacting lynx habitat.
The amendment wipes away a White River National Forest plan standard requiring that “new or expanded permanent developments and vegetation management projects must maintain habitat connectivity in an LAU and/or linkage area.”
The Peak 6 project will include some on-site lynx mitigation, including wildlife closures and other management tactics aimed at reducing impacts, More significantly, the Forest Service will work to protect other areas important for lynx outside the ski area.
During discussions about impacts to lynx from the Peak 6 project, Vail Resorts proposed starting a lynx and wildlife conservation fund to be administered by the National Forest Foundation.
Vail Resorts proposal has been incorporated as part of the approval. With $300,000 in seed money from Vail Resorts, the fund is intended to become self-sustaining and open to contributions from other sources to pay for additional wildlife conservation projects.
Potential projects include the purchase of conservation easements, matching funds for grants, habitat improvements, additional studies, and education efforts.
For starters, $100,000 would go toward road decommissioning projects approved in the forest travel management plan, and $100,000 for completion of the forest lynx/recreation study. The remaining $100,000 would be used for general lynx related studies, education and habitat improvement projects.
Conservation groups had previously vowed to fight the expansion to the bitter end, potentially even with a lawsuit, but at this point, there is very little organized opposition to the ski industry from the conservation movement. Colorado Wild merged with the Center for Native Ecoysystems last year, forming a new group called Rocky Mountain Wild.
The new organization doesn’t have the expertise on staff, or the resources to focus on ski area projects like Peak 6, according to Rocky Mountain Wild conservation director Josh Pollock.
As approved, the expansion includes about 550 additional acres of skiable terrain (407 acres lift-served, 143 acres hike-to), two new lifts to access the terrain (a lower lift and an upper lift), a restroom facility, and a ski patrol/warming hut.
The upper Peak 6 lift would be a high-speed six-seater chair with a 1,550-foot vertical, running a little more than 1 mile, with ground disturbance impacting land and water resources at the top and bottom terminals.
The lower Peak 6 lift would be a fixed-grip quad running about 2,600 feet and serving as a connector to the upper lift from the existing terrain on Peak 7.
“This has been a long process which included an extensive amount of public engagement. I am pleased with the final product and I am confident my decision will result in better skier experiences while providing for the protection of natural resources on the Forest,” Fitzwilliams said in a prepared statement.
“The Peak 6 project was at times very challenging. There were both ecological issues and social issues to struggle with. I realize my decision is not a panacea for all the concerns raised during the process. However, the collaborative efforts between the Forest Service, the Town of Breckenridge and the ski resort have resulted in a better decision and have paved the way for future cooperation,” he said.
“We want to thank the Forest Service for the depth of their environmental analysis that their experts conducted, as well as the entire Breckenridge community who engaged in an extensive public process, resulting in a better project,” said Breckenridge Ski Area’s Pat Campbell.
A Vail Resorts press release suggests that the ski area will complete the expansion in time for the 2013-2014 season.
“Peak 6 will be a tremendous addition to Breckenridge, significantly improving the guest experience by adding both new terrain and lift capacity,” said Rob Katz, chairman and CEO of Vail Resorts. “In addition, the new terrain provides access to intermediate runs and high alpine bowl skiing that will be enjoyed by a wide variety of our guests.”
Sen. Mark Udall also had positive words for the approval, claiming that it balances protecting Colorado’s outdoors with boosting tourism and creating jobs.
There was outspoken criticism of the project from the earliest days, as community residents questioned the need for the expansion, and whether it would do anything to substantially reduce crowding on the existing terrain.
For some critics, the expansion is mostly a marketing tool aimed at drawing new visitors to the resort. Others are concerned about the loss of nearby backcountry skiing opportunities.
There was also some support from parts of the Breckenridge business community, where ski area growth is seen as driving overall business in the town.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision were a result of over 5 years of analysis and public collaboration. The Peak 6 Task Force provided excellent insight and developed a MOU with options to address social concerns within the community.
The decision is subject to administrative appeal. All appeals must be filed within 45 days from the publication of a legal notice.
Additional information can be found on the White River websites http://www.fs.fed.us/nepa/fs-usda-pop.php/?project=23387 and http://www.breckenridgepeak6.com or by contacting Joe Foreman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-262-3443.