Arapahoe Basin Ski Area receives final approval for expansion | SummitDaily.com

Arapahoe Basin Ski Area receives final approval for expansion

Arapahoe Basin Ski Area expansion is officially a go.

The White River National Forest issued its final decision on the Summit County resort's significantly enlarged footprint, chairlift overhaul and summer activities additions late Monday morning, approving a majority of the original application's requests. Of biggest note in the plan is The Beavers project, which will add more than 330 acres of skiable, lift-served expert terrain.

The presently out-of-bounds region of the resort, some of which consists of north-facing chutes above tree line, is popular among backcountry enthusiasts who either hike up the unpatrolled area or take the Lenawee Mountain Lift and duck the rope off the nearby Montezuma Bowl cornice. The mix of avalanche risk and avoiding future deaths in The Beavers made it the driving force of A-Basin's overall request.

"Adding The Beavers will provide something exciting — a whole other new and different experience," said Alan Henceroth, Arapahoe Basin COO. "And the steep gully, it's just awesome out there. I'm very confident people are just going to love it."

Also on the list of approved modifications are new winter grading projects to enhance efficiencies and skier circulation, a new surface lift to the Montezuma Bowl and the construction of both a canopy adventure tour and challenge course for the summer. The initial petition from the 960-acre ski area was rooted in the idea of meeting the needs and expectations of both existing and future guests by making beneficial lift upgrades and generally improving skier safety.

This review process started in 2013 when a formal request was filed with the White River National Forest following the completion of A-Basin's internal master development plan the season prior. That kicked off the years-long exercise of considering all of the potential environmental impacts to wildlife, wetlands and other vegetation, per National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements.

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Along the way, the ski area agreed to drop a summer zip line component, and the federal agency also removed one of three proposed gladed ski trails and reduced the proposed width of the other two to minimize impacts to habitat of the Canada lynx. Through a step-by-step back-and-forth between A-Basin and forest personnel, the two eventually settled on a plan.

"The entire Arapahoe Basin Ski Area Projects analysis and public involvement processes were both thorough and informative in making my decision," Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest supervisor, said in the decision document. "I am approving the selected alternative because it best meets the project purpose and need to meet the growing demand at A-Basin for this terrain type, improve the guest experience across the ski area, and address skier safety with the Beavers."

The most significant objections on the project came from members of a grassroots organization calling itself Friends of Arapahoe Basin, which formed in response to the expansion proposal but has no affiliation with the ski area. On its website, the group describes itself as being made up of local backcountry skiers and snowboarders, mountain bikers and outdoors devotees, who are mobilized to "safeguard our unrestricted access to public lands and open spaces for future generations."

Those September protests, in addition to one jointly filed by a Denver resident and a member of each of the Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain chapter and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, ranged from environmental to financial to infrastructural. Deputy regional forester Maribeth Gustafson assessed each letter and responded in return letters issue by issue in November, directing Fitzwilliams to make a handful of minor tweaks for clarification to the final document for approval, and denying the bulk of suggested remedies — predominately those calling for rejecting A-Basin's request outright.

The final approval on Monday, which the Forest Service rationalized based on both the 2002 White River Forest Plan and 2011 Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, means the ski area can now proceed with the collection of projects. Henceroth would not commit to a fixed timeline for completion on Monday, just that he anticipates it could fall anywhere between five and seven years.

He did say, however, that The Beavers project would happen first and likely take three years to finalize, with a best-case scenario of full access including a new chairlift for the 2018-19 season. The two replacement lifts for the Pallavicini and Molly Hogan chairlifts and assembly of the two summer additions would follow. The need for a more formalized construction plan and locating the necessary financing for the entire project are A-Basin's next steps in the meantime.

The ski area, which was recently named one of Outside Magazine's 100 best places to work for 2016, currently employs 70 year-round employees, and approximately 350 seasonal workers for the winter. A few food and beverage and event seasonals are also kept on for the summer mostly to help with its growing wedding business. Henceroth estimated that once each of the projects is complete, it would lead to the hiring of about 43 more employees — 21 year-round positions related to the summer activities, 19 more winter seasonal staff and three more summer seasonals.

"The biggest piece we have always focused on is maintaining the quality of the experience," Henceroth said. "By, in essence, increasing the size of the ski area by 50 percent, that will keep people spread out really nicely and we think lift lines will be modest to small just about all of the time. People out on the hill, whether skiing or snowboarding, will have a great time and not feel very crowded, and we think the quality is going to be really good."

Project documents are available for download and can be found on the White River National Forest website at http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=41664.

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