Approval includes summer closure to protect wildlife
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — After more than five years of study, the nonprofit Summit Huts Association has a green light to build a new 16-person backcountry shelter on the northern flanks of Baldy Mountain, near Breckenridge, to be called the Weber Gulch Hut.
To protect wildlife habitat, the new hut will only be open in the winter, which represents a change from SHA’s initial proposal to include summer use.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams signed the formal decision notice on June 17, explaining that he weighed all the public comments and relied on a team of scientists and ski experts, who found in their environmental analysis that the hut wouldn’t have a significant impact on the environment. All documents related to the Weber Gulch Hut are posted on this Forest Service web page.
The Forest Service approval means SHA can move into a fundraising and design phase for the hut, which could have a total price tag in excess of $1 million. According to the agency’s decision notice, the hut will be between 1,400 and 2,000 square feet in size. It will likely be assembled in modular sections off-site then transported to the construction site via helicopters and all-terrain vehicles.
Thus far, the organization has spent about $150,000 just to get the required study done, according to board member Jack Wolfe. There’s no firm timeline to complete the hut, but Wolfe said it could take two to three years before the new shelter opens for visitors.
SHA currently operates four popular huts: Janet’s Cabin, near Copper, Francie’s Cabin, near Breckenridge, and the Section House and Ken’s Cabin on Boreas Pass, east of Breckenridge. A long-term vision for Summit Huts includes the possibility of adding a few more cabins to connect with the 10th Mountain Division hut system around Vail Pass, and with the communities of Copper Mountain, Frisco, Breckenridge, Keystone and Montezuma.
Since completion of the Francie’s and Janet’s, hut skiing has boomed in popularity, and spots can be hard to come during the peak ski season. The increased demand is one reason Summit Huts first proposed the new Weber Gulch Hut.
The proposal wasn’t without controversy. Some residents along French Gulch Road, in the vicinity of the trailhead and parking area, expressed concerns about additional traffic and congestion. Some Summit County residents have said there’s already too much recreational development and backcountry activity in the area, to the detriment of wildlife.
The biggest wildlife concern associated with the new hut is the potential impacts to lynx, a snow-loving wildcat that’s regaining a foothold in the Colorado mountains after being all but wiped out during the state’s settlement and development era.
Forest Supervisor Fitzwilliams acknowledge that parts of the forest around the new hut are important for lynx, as hunting and denning grounds, and also as part of a movement corridor that connects habitat for lynx and other wildlife. As a result, Fitzwilliams said his approval includes a forest closure to protect lynx.
“The comments made the plan a stronger plan – one of the most contentious things was the location of the parking lot, so we decided to move it slightly, That made a big difference for the neighbors,” Wolfe said, adding that the trailhead will also be accessible via public transportation.
Wolfe acknowledged public and agency concerns about various impacts, but said the benefits of providing non-motorized recreational experiences should also be considered.
“It’s not about the sticks and bricks. It’s never been just about building another building. It’s about the experience,” he said. “I got involved with Summit Huts after watching my seven-year-old son getting to a hut on his own power,” he said, explaining his passion for the project and his patience with the six-year approval process.
Wolfe said SHA has learned a lot in the 20 years since building Francie’s and Janet’s.
“Twenty years ago, the design was exactly what people expected at the time. This hut will be more environmentally sensitive,” he said, explaining that the organization will carefully try to figure how to use passive solar design to best advantage.
“We’re going to be a lot more careful about our wood consumption,” he said, explaining that, in the past, the huts have relied on melting snow on a wood stove. Some other collection system for water could help cut wood use in a big way, he said.
The Forest Service will require the hut to meet modern agency standards for new buildings. The agency will also require Summit Huts to develop an annual operations plan that could be tweaked from year to year to address emerging concerns.
Fitzwilliams said he acknowledges the concerns about impacts to the recreational experience of other forest visitors who aren’t using the hut, but characterized those impacts as minimal and said they were outweighed by by the recreational opportunities that the proposed Weber Gulch backcountry hut will bring to people who want to use their National Forest.
He addressed the concerns in one of the longest sections of the decision Notice:
The sense of solitude that can accompany cross-country and backcountry skiing is an important part of the overall recreational experience throughout the Analysis Area. I wish to point out that there are, and will continue to be, abundant opportunities for backcountry activities and solitude within the Analysis Area, as well as on the WRNF throughout Summit County. An argument has been made that backcountry areas have been lost throughout Summit County over the years to developed skiing at the four Summit County resorts. That said, no backcountry terrain will be lost as result of my approval and this approval does not increase access to backcountry skiing on Bald Mountain; skiers will still need to get there on their own power. Beyond solitude, I understand that backcountry skiers search out untracked snow. While construction of the proposed Weber Gulch backcountry hut will certainly add to use of some backcountry terrain on Bald Mountain, I believe this is a good use of public lands and is consistent with the WRNF/SHA mission of promoting enjoyment of the natural environment.
While opportunities for solitude can be found occasionally on Sallie Barber Road, it is more notable for its connection to an array of Forest trails across Bald Mountain—many of which provide the user with varying degrees of solitude, depending on how far off the beaten path one is willing to venture. The Forest Service received comments that the potential for an additional 32 skiers per day associated with the proposed Weber Gulch backcountry hut will eliminate the sense of solitude that can be found on trails that branch off of Sallie Barber Road, including Nightmare on Baldy and the Trail of Tears.2 To put it into context, the Selected Alternative incorporates a total of 3.5 miles of roads and trails to access the proposed Weber Gulch backcountry hut; 3.5 miles out of literally hundreds of miles of trails across the WRNF in Summit County alone.3 Approximately 1.3 miles of this total are attributable to Sallie Barber Road, and another 1.3 miles are new trails that will be built specifically to access the proposed Weber Gulch backcountry hut. That leaves 0.9 mile of the existing Nightmare on Baldy trail that will experience higher use. In the context of the number of trails that offer opportunities for a backcountry experience and solitude throughout Summit County, I am convinced that this small impact to day users is outweighed by the recreational opportunities that the proposed Weber Gulch backcountry hut will bring to people who want to use their National Forest.