Backcountry clubs pop up across the country, but are unlikely in Summit
July 18, 2016
For the past six decades, skiing in Colorado has nearly mirrored the beer industry. It's dominated by the biggest names with the deepest roots — Vail Resorts, Powdr Corporation, Aspen Skiing Company — and small-time mountains tend to either get bought out by the big guys or fizzle out completely, like the short-lived Echo Mountain outside of Evergreen.
But the industry is changing. Again, like the beer industry with the rise of craft breweries, independent and private backcountry resorts are now gaining traction across the U.S. As Vail Resorts and Powdr Corporation start to partner with resorts across the world, small pockets of investors with a thirst for powder are getting away from the resort mentality to build backcountry clubs for a select few.
In Vermont, there's the Rochester Area Sports Trail Alliance, a small group that's cutting glades on private land in the backcountry of Braintree Mountain Forest. There are no lifts — it's part of the sustainability angle — but careful cutting in thick forests has opened up thousands of acres to powder hounds willing to explore.
In southwestern Colorado, right on the border between Montrose and Gunnison counties, land developer Jim Aronstein recently opened Cimarron Mountain Club, a 2,000-acre resort separated in 12 tracts of land accessible only by snowcat. In a Denver Post article, Aronstein described the club as "the un-Vail," a place with no lifts and endless powder runs for the lucky few who can afford the luxury. It's a project nearly a decade in the making and it only came together after Aronstein sold his stake in the Battle Mountain Resorts, a lawsuit-laden parcel outside of Minturn, to a Florida developer for $32.5 million.
In Summit County, the promise of private lifts and runs away from Breckenridge Ski Resort and Copper Mountain Resort seems tantalizing. But, the reality is more complicated. Roughly 80 percent of the county is public lands (about 312,000 acres of a total 390,000 acres), according to the Summit County assessor, split between U.S. Forest Service land and municipal open space. The only remaining swaths of private land are small, fractured mining claims in the Blue River area and ranch land north of Silverthorne — hardly fit for a resort.
"I don't ever want to say something is impossible, but really the only place it seems practical to me is the Lower Blue down by Green Mountain Reservoir," said Brian Lorch with the Summit County open space department. "You have large land holdings down there, but a lot of that land is ranch land. It might not be the best for that type of use."
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Welcome to Parkville Resort
The last time a group of developers tried to open a new resort in the county was nearly three decades ago, when a small group with ties to Vail introduced a proposal for the Parkville Resort. The proposed resort, which sits on a parcel near the south fork of the Swan River outside of Keystone, made it through the U.S. Forest Service vetting process and into the White River National Forest master plan in the mid-'80s.
And that was as far as it went. Shortly after, county commissioners decided against the proposal and ended up buying the parcel from the developers.
"That area was created with the intention of creating a resort, and they certainly had momentum in the '80s," Lorch said. "But since that time I haven't been aware of anyone trying something similar."
Today, the Parkville subdivision is open space, surrounded on all sides by national forest land. It's the story of most large parcels in the county: If a resort is proposed — if a developer has access to several tracts large enough for even one or two lifts and several runs — it must first earn the blessing of the U.S. Forest Service, then the county, then the public. The process is long and complicated, and for most hopeful investors, it's too cumbersome to move forward.
"An even bigger hurdle than the zoning is the space," said Scott Reid with the town of Breckenridge's open space department. "I don't think there are private parcels large enough for that and you'd have to get a permit from the Forest Service. That's no easy task."
Mountains of paperwork
To understand the difficulties, look at the hurdles large companies have encountered over the past decade. At Breckenridge, the Peak 6 expansion was in the works for nearly 10 years before it won approval by the U.S. Forest Service. Even then, the resort had to complete several studies, including the potential impact on lynx habitat, before moving forward. That process took another two years, from 2011 to 2013, until the first group of skiers caught the first chair on Kensho.
On a smaller scale, even the Summit Huts Association faced major hurdles when it proposed its newest backcountry hut, Weber Hut, a $1- to $2-million project on the north aspect of Bald Mountain. The two-story building finally won approval last summer after four years of site planning and impact studies, including another about lynx habitats.
"It's kind of like running the first half of the marathon," Jack Wolfe of the Summit Hut Association told the Summit Daily shortly after the plans were approved. "We still have a lot of work to do."
One of the biggest hurdles for any structure or trail in the backcountry is zoning. The county has distinct rules for just about every backcountry project — roads, mining, even huts — but nothing specifically tailored for ski area amenities like chairlifts and snowmaking.
"There are a whole host of limitations," said Reid, who admits he's not well-versed in the specifics of backcountry zoning. Instead of true resorts, he says the local approach to private backcountry has always been tied to a hut system.
"That's the model in this part of the county," Reid said. "It's a similar concept — you can go in the backcountry and spend a night and day skiing — and right now we have a new hut planned."
The Summit approach
But what about smaller venues, like a town-owned terrain park? That's also been proposed and shot down, most recently in Breckenridge with the Prospector Park development in the heart of downtown. When the town acquired the land about three years ago, a small terrain park was one of several projects proposed by town planners. But, after a brief review period, the town council opted to build an art park instead.
"I don't think we're opposed to the concept, it's more about the other questions that come up: how is it funded, how is it served, how is it built?" Reid said.
In Silverthorne, young Burton snowboarder Red Gerard and his brothers started building rails and small snow features on their family's property. Known as Red's Backyard, the park is two seasons old and a favorite hangout for snowboarders who would rather play on private property than pay for a season pass.
"People get excited about this, telling us, 'I have this I can bring over to make it cooler,'" said Jen Gerard, Red's mom. "It's just nice to have a place where kids can come over, hang out and have fun. This is more about the boys being creative and having friends over."
Jen Gerard said she has no plans of ever turning the park into a public venue — it's still her backyard — but doesn't think it would be feasible anyway. Again, the amount of paperwork would be staggering.
"Unfortunately, the lawyers get involved and then you have liability, and that really does ruin things because kids need more options like that," Jen Gerard said. "It's the beauty of a skatepark: you just need to buy a board and can ride for free. Any way you can find to get kids outside — being outside, doing what they love, staying active away from technology — I just think we need more of that."
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