SNOWMASS - A federal judge's ruling Friday will allow Aspen Skiing Co. to complete the work necessary to open about 230 acres of additional skiing terrain on Burnt Mountain.
U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg denied a request for an injunction by an environmental group called the Ark Initiative that would have stopped Skico from selective thinning of trees and brush on Burnt Mountain, on the east side of Snowmass Ski Area.
Trail crews will resume their work any day now, and the additional terrain will be ready for the 2012-13 ski season, according to Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle.
"We will get people in there this winter," he said.
The Ark Initiative, a Pinedale, Wyo.-based nonprofit environmental group, claimed Skico's work shouldn't be allowed because the Forest Service erred by removing a portion of Burnt Mountain from the roadless inventory. Roadless lands get special protection.
But Boasberg ruled that the 2011 Colorado Roadless Rule eliminates roadless areas from within ski-area boundaries. The Ark Initiative needed to raise its concerns about roadless lands within ski-area boundaries when Colorado's roadless rule was being debated, the judge said.
"The Colorado Roadless Rule was not off-the-cuff rulemaking," Boasberg wrote in his order. "As the Forest Service explained in its letter (to the Ark Initiative), the rule 'is the result of extensive public involvement. More than 310,000 public comments, over a six-year period, were reviewed and considered in the development of the final rule.'"
The Ark Initiative "chose not to comment on the rule and thus cannot challenge it now. If plaintiffs wanted roadless designations in ski areas, they should have participated in the rulemaking," the order continued.
White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said he hopes this latest ruling puts an end to the debate over Burnt Mountain. The Forest Service approved a Snowmass Ski Area Master Development Plan in 1994 that paved the way for expansion onto Burnt Mountain. Skico amended the plan in 2003 and applied a year later for specific approvals for the Burnt Mountain work. After three years of review, the Forest Service approved the plan. The Ark Initiative filed an administrative protest, which was denied. The Ark Initiative then filed a lawsuit in federal court that was denied and upheld by an appeals court.
"We've been dealing with this long enough," Fitzwilliams said. "They've dragged us into court three times now."
William Eubanks, an attorney for the Ark Initiative, couldn't be reached for comment Monday on what, if anything, will be the next step for the environmental group.
The Forest Service is formally notifying Skico that it can move forward with the project, Fitzwilliams said.
"A good portion of the work is done," he said.
He estimated 60 to 70 percent of the tree thinning and clean-up is finished.
In an earlier interview, Rich Burkley, Skico vice president of operations, estimated the trails crew will remove fewer than 800 living and dead trees from about 6.5 acres within the 230-acre area of Burnt Mountain. The terrain is east of Longshot, the existing inbounds trail on Burnt Mountain. The rest of Burnt Mountain is popular backcountry or sidecountry terrain.
Skico is glading areas between natural parks or breaks in the forest. There won't be designated trails, Burkley said previously, but rather thin routes through the trees.
The expansion will boost the skiable terrain at Snowmass to 3,362 acres. That makes it the second-largest ski area in Colorado behind Vail Mountain.
The Ark Initiative's lawsuit was filed in the District of Columbia on Sept. 11. When it was filed, the Forest Service asked Skico to voluntarily halt work while the legal fight was being settled. Skico intervened in the lawsuit on the side of the Forest Service.
The judge's 20-page ruling said even if the Ark Initiative was correct and lands on Burnt Mountain were removed by the Forest Service by mistake from the roadless inventory, the mistake was made moot when the Colorado Roadless Rule was created.
"In other words, it does not matter whether the Burnt Mountain parcel has the characteristics of a roadless area; the parcel is inside Snowmass Ski Area, so the Colorado Roadless Rule precludes designating it roadless," the ruling said. "Effectively, the Forest Service is saying that any error in earlier inventories is harmless because the Burnt Mountain parcel cannot qualify as roadless now anyway."
The order didn't directly address a related portion of the Burnt Mountain controversy. The Forest Service didn't grant permission to Skico this fall to work on an egress from the base of Burnt Mountain to the Two Creeks section of Snowmass, where there is a chairlift. About 1,500 feet of a 1,900-foot egress was in inventoried roadless areas.
Fitzwilliams said the judge's order appears to clear the way for Skico to work on other, formerly roadless areas that are within the ski-area boundary.
"We're still trying to figure out what to do about that egress area," Fitzwilliams said. "I have to talk to our (National Environmental Policy Act) experts to determine how we go ahead with that."