It used to be that when the snow melted in the springtime, most of the nation’s ski resorts would resume life as quiet mountain towns waiting for winter to roll around again.
But in recent years there’s been an industry-wide push for year-round tourism and expansion of summer activity offerings. The push was designed in part to introduce out-of-towners to what year-round mountain residents already knew: There’s stuff to do in the mountains in the summertime. The idea was also to increase year-round business and help local economies cope with summer business lulls.
In 2011 Congress passed the Ski Area Recreational Opportunities Enhancement Act — co-authored by Colorado Sen. Mark Udall — in order to expand the kinds of facilities ski areas operating on U.S. Forest Service land could build. The act allows ski areas to use “existing infrastructure” — like chairlifts and gondolas — to expand summer offerings. Activities that fall under those guidelines include zip lines, mountain bike parks, disc golf and ropes courses.
While the act has met with approval from a number of interested parties, it has not been without opposition. From environmental groups concerned about impact on the local ecology to slope-side homeowners concerned about property values and noise, there are those who view summer expansion in a negative light.
That debate is about to return to Summit County with Breckenridge Ski Resort’s proposed summer expansion plans currently under evaluation by the Forest Service. The plans include adding a number of zip lines, ropes courses and canopy tours, along with additional mountain bike trails and summer operation of two of the resort’s above-tree-line lifts. The Forest Service will host a public open house regarding the proposal on Wednesday, March 5, at the Mountain Thunder Lodge in Breckenridge, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The project is currently in the public comment and environmental impact study stage of development. Construction would begin after final approval of the plans, which is likely to be sometime in 2015.
Officials from Breckenridge and the White River National Forest say the project is designed to promote forest awareness, to introduce visitors who may not ordinarily be exposed to the outdoors to new experiences and to help expand summer tourism.
“For us the whole thing is to create a healthier year-round economy. This is all about creating a more robust summer experience so people will stay in town longer,” Breckenridge spokeswoman Kristen Petitt Stewart said. “The whole purpose is to get people out and exposed to the wilderness. We want people to get into the forest and get there toes wet.”
White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the project falls under the guidelines of the resort’s special-use permit and the Ski Area Enhancement Act.
“We see this as an opportunity to use the existing infrastructure,” he said. “It’s a new set of opportunities for people to experience the outdoors. We’re going to make sure that we integrate that whole experience with the forest.”
But opponents of the initial proposal believe it might extend beyond the guidelines of the enhancement act and are concerned that it will include substantial additional construction in areas that are currently undeveloped.
Jeff Carlson of the Breckenridge Open Space Advisory Commission voiced what he believes is a view commonly held among the opposition. “The general scope of the project is a little too broad,” he said. He was specifically concerned with a proposed zip line canopy tour in the Ore Bucket area around Peak 7, which he said is far removed from the more developed base area.
“It’s a different environment for wildlife; currently it’s untouched by human hands.”
Rocky Smith — who described himself as an independent forest management consultant formerly with the Rocky Mountain Wild conservation agency — echoed the sentiment, specifically concerning lift operations in above-tree-line terrain. “This would take people up to the upper area, which doesn’t get much use in the summer,” he said. “I’m for summer tourism. It’s gotta be in line with what the land can provide. This seems like a little much. We’ll be a voice for scaling it down.”
The two also voiced concerns about potential drainage issues that construction could create.
For those concerned with the project fringing on being an amusement park on Forest Service land, Stewart countered, “We very much want this to fit in with the existing infrastructure and existing canopy.” She explained that the expansions are designed to be educational, giving guests a chance to discover the outdoors. “I would love for people to take a closer look at our plans,” she said. “The intent is not to get people out there in a manufactured way.”
Fitzwilliams added that the enhancement act specifically excludes amusement parks from any proposed expansion.
“The law says no to an amusement park. It’s our job to differentiate and show that this is a different experience than you get in an amusement park.”
He said the project and others like it are “trying to instill long-term stewardship of our public lands. That’s really important to us. It’s woven into the experience. That’s what we’re looking for.”
He also pointed out that this kind of expansions isn’t intended for the avid outdoorsman; rather it’s to give people who may not have much experience outdoors a chance to be outside in a safe environment.
“If you wanted a solid backbacking experience you wouldn’t go to Breckenridge Ski Resort,” he said, adding that that’s what the other 800,000 acres of White River Forest are for. “We wouldn’t entertain this outside of a ski resort.”
Kent Sharp of the SE Group — the environmental consulting firm that will be working with the Forest Service on the environmental impact study — reinforced the idea that projects like Breckenridge’s can be good for tourism. “It just makes a ton of sense from a business standpoint. Four-season resorts offer an opportunity to get people out into the outdoors that ordinarily wouldn’t. Extending those opportunities to a broader segment is a good thing.”
Sharp explained that his firm studies a number of resort-expansion proposals. And while expansions like Breckenridge’s might not suit every ski area, in the right location they can be good for the economy. He also said that activities like those proposed by Breck are typically “pretty light on the land” and “low impact.”
The proposed expansion at Breckenridge is still in its early stages. Both Stewart and Fitzwilliams encourage the those with concerns to offer input during the public comment period, which concludes March 12.
“We’re eager to hear what the public has to say,” Fitzwilliams 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.”
Speaking on behalf of Breckenridge, Stewart agreed. “I think it’s important to get everyone’s feedback,” she said. “For folks that are concerned this is their opportunity to speak.”