The decision by the U.S. Forest Service to approve the Peak 6 expansion at Breckenridge Ski Resort has received two appeals and endorsements by 45 individuals and environmental groups.
The Forest Service has 45 days from today to submit a final written decision on the expansion.
The first appeal was submitted by Rocky Smith, a forest policy consultant previously employed by Rocky Mountain Wild with more than 45 people in support, many representing local and regional environmental groups and Breckenridge citizens opposed to the expansion.
"The extensive amount of endorsements on the first appeal are very rare, I've never seen that before," said Peech Keller, deputy district ranger and forest environmental coordinator for the Forest Service.
The number of appeals or endorsements however, have no affect on the final decision.
"The final decision doesn't take into account how many appeals there were, it all has to do with whether there were any law regulation or policy violations," Keller said.
A second appeal, submitted by an independent citizen was received before the appeal deadline Tuesday.
The expansion, proposed to mitigate overcrowding and offer more intermediate terrain, would add a six-person chairlift, a lower fixed-grip lift, 413 acres of lift serviced skiing and 143 acres of hike-to skiing as well as restroom and ski patrol facilities.
"This has been a long process which included an extensive amount of public engagement," said Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest supervisor. "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."
The expansion of the ski area has prompted extensive public outcry on the negative impacts.
"There's a lot of people that don't like the Forest Service's decision to approve Peak 6. It's not just a couple of groups, it's a large number of people," Smith said. "I think the Forest Service is too much in bed with the ski industry. They should look at a proposal from a ski area at arm's length, I don't believe they've done that."
Many Breck residents in opposition are concerned that the expansion will not ease crowding, but intensify it.
"Breckenridge is a brutally crowded ski resort," said Chad Zanca, a longtime Breckenridge resident who says he regularly rides terrain off Peak 6. "To make it bigger and bring more people will only make it worse. Once this boundary is maxed out where do they go next?"
Additionally, opponents of the decision argue the proposed intermediate terrain is unsuitable for the average skier and would not divert traffic from other parts of the ski area.
"Most of the terrain that would be opened up on Peak 6 is not intermediate. It's too steep, would not be graded and it gets avalanche debris from above," Smith said. "It's going to be tough for the average intermediate skier, some of it is just way too steep."
Though deciding official Fitzwilliams said the region around Peak 6 is already unable to meet federal standards for lynx habitat, opponents of the expansion say impacts are not weighed by the need to ease crowding.
"Lynx habitat is going to be hurt by fragmenting the area they travel," Smith said. "The Forest Service seems to think that since the habitat is already so bad it's okay to make it worse. It has been affected, no question, by the existing ski area. Right now it is impaired somewhat, but it's not severed. This expansion might sever it."
Fitzwilliams and researchers for the Forest Service looked at conservation efforts in the project area, but said they "found very few if any that would help lynx at all."
"There is no question that there are impacts," Fitzwilliams said. "The region surrounding Peak 6 does not meet federal standards for lynx habitat, regardless of the expansion we really couldn't meet that standard."
The resident population of lynx in Summit County, who are known to use Copper Mountain, Vail Pass and the area near Climax Mine, is estimated to be approximately six animals, according to Jake Ivan, a wildlife researcher with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Officials from the Forest Service declined to comment on the appeal until the process has been completed. The deadline for a final written decision to be submitted is no later than Nov. 23.
Historically, an appeal has never reversed a decision made by the Forest Service, but the overwhelming number of endorsements from the opposition may bolster the effort.
Groups represented on the appeal include: Winter Wildlands Alliance based in Boise, Idaho, The High Country Citizens Alliance out of Crested Butte, Bio-Diversity Conservation Alliance, the local Blue River Sierra Club Group, Rocky Mountain Recreation Initiative, Rocky Mountain Wild and Summit Winterlands and Trails, a local group that seeks to protect non-motorized backcountry winter experience. The remainder of the names on the appeal were independent citizens.
"An amazing number of citizens said yes to being on the appeal," Smith said.
Part of the appeal was written by the University of Denver's Environmental Law Clinic, a group of graduate law students that weighed in on the opposition's main points against expansion.
"They strengthened the appeal by putting in the legal arguments to backup our disputes," Smith said.
Once an appeal is submitted, the Forest Service has 45 days to issue a written decision. In the meantime, the Forest Service may organize a informal disposition to resolve the complaints in the appeal.
"I don't know if we'll accept that offer, we are not obligated to," Smith said. "I don't think we can resolve it - the issues are too deep and the Forest Service does not wish to address them in any real way. If they call us up we'll probably talk to them, but I don't expect a whole lot to happen."
If the appeal does not overturn or alter the decision, the appeal party has the option of taking the case to Federal District Court.
"It's possible we could take the case to court if enough people wanted to and the legal issues are strong enough," Smith said. "I don't know where we'll go with that, that's not a threat to litigate, but I mention it as a possibility."
Smith and other opponents say the ball is in the Forest Service's court.
"It's all about the money. We have demonstrated this is not going to help the supposed shortage of intermediate terrain nor is it going to address the crowding which is a real problem, no we're just waiting to see what they do," Smith added.