A long-awaited report from the U.S. Forest Service on the environmental impacts of the Breckenridge Ski Resort's proposed expansion to Peak 6 is stirring up controversy among the project's stakeholders, due to a perceived conflict of interests.
The controversy stems from SE Group - the company contracted to help produce the pivotal environmental impact statement (EIS) - which has strong ties to the ski industry in general and Breckenridge Ski Resort in particular, raising concerns for some over the potential for bias in the study.
"Having a company that has a prior fiduciary relationship with the applicant evaluate the environmental impact is like allowing a beauty contestant's father to be a judge," Breckenridge Town Councilman Jeffrey Bergeron said.
But officials from the Forest Service say the agency avoids the danger of bias or conflicts of interest from contracted firms through close supervision of the production of the report and careful editing.
Consultants on the study often use Forest Service data as well, according to Roger Poirier, winter sports program manager for the White River National Forest.
The release of the completed report, which has been delayed several times, is now expected sometime in February or March.
"We need to do the analysis that it takes to do an adequate report," Poirier said. "We can say it's going to take four months or six months, but sometimes it just takes longer."
SE Group has a stated dedication "to the future of the mountain resort industry" and claims 50 years of experience in helping clients "get things built," on its website.
SE Group was hired by the resort in 2007 to consult on its master plan, which included an early design of the Peak 6 expansion.
"They're kind of inside all the way," said Paul Joyce, a conservation associate at the environmental group Colorado Wild. "It should be written by an unbiased third party, but it certainly isn't in the case of (SE Group)." Colorado Wild has expressed strong opposition to the Peak 6 expansion plan.
The ski resort, however, has no business ties to SE Group now that the company is contracted with the Forest Service on the EIS and communication between the two is "primarily only through Forest Service personnel," stated Vail Resorts public affairs director Kristin Williams in an e-mail.
"We are always very careful to define up front whether SE is working for us or the USFS on any given project," Williams stated. "They never work for both at the same time."
Poirier said the Forest Service selected SE Group to work on the environmental impact statement as the most-qualified company from a small pool of potential contractors. Breckenridge also reiterated the fact that there are few companies with the expertise to handle this kind of complex project.
Representatives from SE Group declined to comment due to a stipulation in its agreement with the Forest Service.
The proposed project is an expansion of the Breckenridge Ski Resort boundaries to include Peak 6, which would add 350 acres of terrain served by one new lift and 100 acres of hike-to terrain.
Environmentalists are concerned about the impact the expansion could have on the endangered lynx populations in the area as well as the ecologically valuable Cucumber Gulch wetlands. The EIS is expected to investigate these concerns along with other potential environmental issues and present possible alternatives ranging from no action to full approval of the proposal.
The EIS is a report from the Forest Service, determining the consequences of the proposed expansion for the land and wildlife on Peak 6. It is part of a process mandated by the federal National Environmental Policy Act.
But it is unclear whether there is any chance the proposal could be shut down based on the outcome of the environmental impact statement. Joyce believes it to be unlikely.
Poirier said the public perception that "the Forest Service never says no," is out of context and that many projects, Peak 6 included, undergo significant revisions based on the agency's needs and public comments before they are finally approved.
When the Forest Service accepted the proposal, the agency took ownership of the project, Poirier said. Now it's not just the ski resort that wants to see the expansion move forward. The Forest Service also has a vested interest in the project's approval.
"We want to provide opportunities for the American public ... to come out and enjoy the national forest," Poirier said. "It's in both our interests for this project to succeed."
But, ultimately, no final decision on the project has been made yet, he said.
A public comment period will follow the release of the draft EIS.
UPDATED: Corrects name of National Environmental Policy Act.