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August 28, 2014
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Forest Service approves most of Vail Mountain summer expansion proposal

Vail Mountain’s summer expansion proposal took another step toward reality last week.

On Wednesday, Aug. 20, the U.S. Forest Service released the final environmental impact statement and the draft record of decision for Vail Resorts’ first-of-its-kind summer activities proposal, Epic Discovery at Vail Mountain.

“Epic Discovery will make the national forest more accessible and engaging and will also create jobs in our community and contribute positively to the local economy,” said Chris Jarnot, senior vice president and COO of Vail Mountain, in a news release.

The Forest Service approved all of the resort’s proposed new features except one of the alpine coasters and the permanent wedding venue.

In the draft decision document, which will become final in October after a 45-day objection period, White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams wrote,“I believe that our national forests are neither amusement parks nor circus attractions. They are far more valuable and unique, and this suite of projects will not change that expectation. With these projects, the nature-based experience at our resorts is only being enhanced, not degraded.”

Roger Poirer, the project’s leader for the White River National Forest, said while each Forest Service decision on summer expansion proposals will be site-specific, the agency recognizes that the Vail Mountain decision sets a precedent and will lead to similar proposals in the future.

“The White River has always been the proving ground for decisions like this,” he said.

TWO FEATURES REJECTED

The Pride Express Mountain Coaster was not approved, he said, because the resort didn’t provide enough information for the Forest Service to properly analyze the impacts of the attraction.

The proposal showed the coaster going over busy skiing terrain with at least a dozen towers, he said, which wouldn’t fit with the agency’s directive to approve only features that are “subordinate to existing vegetation and landscape.”

The proposal’s other coaster was approved, though, because it would be in a forested island next to the resort’s Adventure Ridge park area, which opened in 1996, and would be hard to see from ski trails, he said.

“We’re not just approving blanket activities,” he said, like coasters or zip lines. “It’s about the design process and how much information they give us.”

As for the wedding venue, the resort already has decks it uses for weddings booked every weekend in the summer, but the proposed Wedding Venue at the 10th was not approved because permanent wedding venues are prohibited, according to new Forest Service direction for ski areas released at the federal level in April.

A multipurpose facility might be allowed under the resort’s special use permit, Poirer said, so the resort could modify the two features that weren’t approved and propose them again in coming years as part of a separate project.

Vail Resorts plans to construct the approved trails and activities in summer 2015.

Before that, Poirer said, the Forest Service will work with the resort and its contractors to adjust and approve the nitty-gritty details of each new feature in a stage called the building design review process.

The Forest Service has 60 years of experience with approving winter sports infrastructure at ski resorts, while summer activities are relatively new and don’t have industry standards. The agency will analyze functional and aesthetic aspects of each feature to ensure they fit with the setting.

“The public, the forest and the resorts — we want to make sure that we’re getting what we’re authorizing,” Poirer said. “We’re not going to use Disney colors.”

WHY EXPAND?

Vail Resorts first proposed the Epic Discovery summer activities expansion for its Vail Mountain resort in 2012, followed by similar plans for Breckenridge Ski Resort and Heavenly Mountain Resort.

The proposals followed the passage of the 2011 Ski Area Recreational Opportunities Enhancement Act, championed by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, which amended the 1986 National Forest Ski Area Permit Act to allow more activities at ski resorts on national forest lands.

The move to grow summer recreation offerings fits with a worldwide trend at ski resorts that started with resorts in Europe and other parts of the U.S. that operate on private land.

For the resorts, it makes financial sense to spread out real estate revenue throughout the year and transition more employees to year-round positions.

The resorts’ Forest Service landlord, meanwhile, wants more people, in terms of quantity and diversity of age and background, to have positive outdoor experiences that lead them to politically support the agency and conservation efforts.

According to the Forest Service, summer use at Vail Mountain increased 100 percent between 2008 and 2013, averaging 103,600 visitors a year (measured by the number of lift tickets sold for the resort’s two gondolas).

Locals opposed to the expansions have argued against bringing more tourists and traffic to the High Country.

WHAT TO EXPECT in BRECK

At Breckenridge, the resort wants to add zip lines, ropes courses, bike trails, a high mountain lookout tour, a climbing wall and summer operation of two existing above-tree-line lifts — 6-Chair and Imperial Express.

That resort is seeing 18 percent growth annually, Poirer said, and the people who would use the new activities are already there.

Though the White River National Forest is using the same process to scrutinize both High Country proposals, what is ultimately approved at Breckenridge won’t be based on what is approved at Vail.

“The setting at Breckenridge really is very different from that of Vail,” Poirer said. The resorts share some proposed activities and both are owned by Vail Resorts, but “it’s a different mountain, it’s a different client base and it’s a different project.”

The final environmental impact statement released last week for the Vail project analyzes effects to recreation, visuals, social and economic resources, wildlife and aquatic resources, watershed and wetlands, and vegetation.

The agency added more information to the document on the proposal’s effects on scenery and recreation based on the federal direction released in April.

Other than that, the final analysis looks very similar to its draft because the draft received about 50 comments, Poirer said, or relatively little feedback for a project of its size.

“I guarantee that’ll be different for the Breckenridge EIS,” he said, adding that he expects maybe 10 times the number of comments on that draft. “The Breckenridge community is a little more engaged.”

ENVIRONMENTAL AND OTHER CONCERNS

In previous public comment periods, government officials with the town of Breckenridge and Summit County expressed concerns about soil and water quality and local residents spoke up about protecting moose, elk, deer, lynx and snowshoe hare habitat.

“We heard loud and clear that the alpine environment is a concern for members of the public,” Poirer said.

Issues about above-tree-line areas were also raised by the project’s interdisciplinary team, which includes a botanist, wildlife biologist, soils specialist, hydrologist, landscape architect, archaeologist and recreation specialist, and analyzes the effects of the project on the environment and existing activities and determines potential mitigations.

At Vail, environmental concerns were almost nonexistent. The issues raised by the Forest Service and the general public were more social and questioned how proposed recreation would intersect with existing activities.

The Forest Service is still developing the draft environmental impact statement for Breckenridge, Poirer said, which will look at questions like, “What would people do once they get off Imperial Chair?” and “What kind of facilities might the resort need to add there to make the experience safe?”

He expects that document will be released in the next few months for public comment.

“I’m pretty confident the alternatives we’ve come up with are going to address all concerns,” he said. “It’s important for us as well as the public to really take a hard look at this.”

To view the Forest Service documents associated with the Vail project, visit vailrec-eis.info.


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The Summit Daily Updated Aug 28, 2014 07:06PM Published Aug 28, 2014 05:04PM Copyright 2014 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.