Breckenridge Ski Resort took another step toward expanding its summer offerings with the initial approval by the U.S. Forest Service of the resort’s 2013 Master Development Plan, which includes a number of additional summer activities and improvements to existing infrastructure.
White River National Forest officials are currently preparing the environmental impact statement on the project and seeking public input on the proposed plans.
“We’re just initiating the environmental review process. This is the very initial stages of (the project),” said White River Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. “We’re asking the public and interested stakeholders what their thoughts are.”
Breckenridge’s plan — which falls under its Forest Service special use permit and the guidelines of the 2011 Ski Area Recreational Opportunities Enhancement Act — involves adding zip lines, ropes courses, bike trails and other amenities to the resort’s existing activities in an effort to continue promoting itself as a year-round travel destination. The proposal also includes expansion of the resort’s off-road tour offerings, a high mountain lookout tour, a climbing wall and summer operation of two existing above-tree-line lifts — 6-Chair and Imperial Express. Resort and Forest Service officials say the goal of the project is to offer a wider range of opportunities to attract new guests to public lands.
“It’s a new set of opportunities for people to experience the outdoors, taking advantage of areas that are somewhat developed already,” Fitzwilliams said.
Both Fitzwilliams and Kent Sharp of the SE Group — an environmental impact consulting firm affiliated with the project — said that there is a growing market for these activities. They believe that summer resort offerings give a growing urban population — less accustomed to outdoor activities — exposure to nature in a safe and controlled environment.
“Americans as a culture are developing away from outdoor activities,” Sharp said. “Four-season resorts offer an opportunity to get people out into the outdoors that ordinarily wouldn’t.”
Fitzwilliams agreed with Sharp.
“Opportunities that are shorter in duration kind of reflects the busy world we live in,” he said, also emphasizing the project would be less like an amusement park and more of an opportunity to experience nature.
“There’s quite a difference between what we’re looking at and an amusement park,” he said. “Even though it’s thrilling and fast, it’s really about the context of the whole experience. We’re going to make sure that we integrate the whole experience with the forest, trying to instill long-term stewardship of our public lands.”
Private forest management consultant Rocky Smith, formerly affiliated with the Rocky Mountain Wild conservation group, offered a different perspective.
“There’s a number of things that concern me about this,” he said of the project.
Chief among his concerns is the project’s size and scope and the potential for it to bring increased traffic to sensitive high-alpine environments.
“I’m OK with some summer use and maybe a little more. This would be a lot of new facilities and it would take people up to areas that see very little human use in the summer.”
Sharp acknowledged some of Smith’s concerns.
“Areas above tree line need to be looked at very, very carefully,” he said, explaining that was what the environmental impact study will be about. But he also added that below the tree line — where much of Breckenridge’s activities are planned — “a lot of activities are low impact.”
Fitzwilliams also acknowledged the extensive evaluation the project will receive from the Forest Service.
“It’s a long, organic process of environmental analysis,” he said. “We’re eager to hear what the public has to say.”
Of reservations like those Smith expressed, Fitzwillaims said, “We try to dig into these concerns and determine what are the effects on these alpine areas. That’s why we go through this process.”
He also added that while the initial proposal has been approved, “that doesn’t mean we have to do everything that’s proposed.”
Construction on the project would likely begin in summer 2015.
The White River National Forest is currently accepting public comments and will hold its first public open house regarding the proposal on Wednesday, March 5, at the Mountain Thunder Lodge from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The deadline for public comments is March 12.