U.S. Forest Service clears path for alpine coaster at Copper Mountain Resort | SummitDaily.com

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U.S. Forest Service clears path for alpine coaster at Copper Mountain Resort

The U.S. Forest Service looks poised to approve a plan to expand summer activites at Copper Mountain Resort.

As Summit County's ski resorts begin to set their gears in motion for another snow season, the White River National Forest has released a draft environmental assessment for a series of new summer projects at Copper Mountain Resort.

In February, the Forest Service released notice to about 56 interested community members and organizations announcing that Copper was proposing three new projects. The notice informed the recipients of the Forest Service's plans to conduct an environmental impact assessment, and asked for comments from the readers on the additions.

The first proposed project is an alpine roller coaster that would be built in the Center Village area near the American Flyer lift. The coaster would be gravity-driven and would incorporate 1,850 feet of uphill track, a 500-square-foot operators building, a 3,950-foot downhill track, and a 2,200-square-foot bottom terminal building on private land. The track would require three new bridges, but construction and maintenance would use existing mountain access roads and the cleared route for the coaster track. Construction is anticipated to take 6 months, and the coaster will be open during daylight hours year round.

The resort is also planning to create a new, mile-long mountain biking trail that would extend from the Fat Marmot ski run down to Center Village. This trail would improve the connectivity of Copper's mountain bike trails and effectively disperse bikers across the mountain, as the trail would be located on the east side of the American Flyer lift.

The bike trail would be constructed with a mini-excavator and would have a 5-foot tread width, requiring an 8-foot cleared corridor. Trees would be removed as necessary, but the entire alignment of the forest would not be clear-cut. Slash, logs and stumps would be burned from the trail soon after tree removal in the spring and fall.

The last element of the resort's construction plan is the enhancement of snowmaking equipment on the West Encore and Collage ski trails. Although Copper's existing snowmaking system covers 329 acres of developed terrain network, the popularity and windward exposure of the two runs mean that they often have insufficient snow coverage. More snow is needed on West Encore for ski and snowboard training, while Collage needs more coverage to allow for top-to-bottom trail access for the public in the early season.

The snowblowing additions would add 20 acres of snowmaking coverage within the existing terrain network. Up to 0.25 acres of tree removal might be necessary for construction, and the operation of the snowblowing equipment would require 29 acre-feet, or about 8.5-million gallons, of water. This water will be drawn from Copper's existing source of physical and legal water supply. The resort will continue to divert 530 acre-feet (about 170 million gallons) of water per season.

"The project as proposed will help to diversify the summer amenities at Copper and will also provide great snow coverage for early season ski and snowboard training that is unique to Copper," said Dillon District ranger Bill Jackson in a press release.

When considering the environmental impacts of the projects, the Forest Service looked at eight main factors: recreation, scenery, cultural sites, social and economic resources, botany and wetlands, water resources, wildlife, and soils. The investigation team decided that air quality, climate change, environmental justice, noise, traffic and special designations such as wilderness would not be measurably affected by the construction and operation of the projects.

The study found that three new additions would benefit recreation in the area. Winter visitation would likely not increase due to the alpine coaster, but in the summer, the coaster is predicted to bring approximately 10,000 guests, or 100 guests per day, to Copper. This is an increase that the resort can accommodate, the study concluded. The Forest Service assessment also determined that the new mountain bike trail and the snowblowing developments would both improve the conditions for visitors enjoying the outdoors.

Likewise, the visual impact of the projects will be minimal, although the coaster, with its reflective tracks, will be visible for a short time from I-70, as well as from the base area and surrounding ski runs, the study said. None of the proposed projects would impact any identified cultural sites or resources.

Like much development of ski resorts, the three proposed projects are expected to have a positive socioeconomic impact on the community. The operation and maintenance of the alpine coaster would create approximately eight additional jobs, which will be filled by employees from Copper's existing pool of part-time workers. By working two seasons in one year, these workers would be able to qualify more quickly for the resort's healthcare plan.

The impact on the flora surrounding the sites will be composed largely of tree removal. However, because all the projects are linear, the resort would remove trees as necessary within a given acreage, but would not clear-cut that area.

In order to mitigate the risk of impact to the local watershed and aquatic life, a drainage management system has been proposed, which would reroute surface runoff from the additional blown snow through an armored channel into West Lake.

The construction of the alpine coaster, snowmaking infrastructure and bike trail will have some impact on wildlife, resulting in the permanent loss of about 2.9 acres of winter foraging habitat and 0.35 acres of other habitat. It would also lead to the summer displacement of other wildlife due to the operation of the coaster and the use of the bike trail. There would also be some habitat loss due to tree removal.

The soil stability and quality are not likely to be heavily affected by the new projects, as the ground surrounding the construction areas is quite stable, and post-treatment slash will be returned to the site to prevent a loss of organic material.

In all, the action plan would add 10.3 acres of grading, 1.4 acres of tree clearing, 1.8 acres of combined grading and tree clearing, 20 acres of snowmaking coverage, 1 mile of mountain biking trail, and 40 acre-feet (13 million gallons) of water in the new drainage system.

The environmental impact of the planned projects is fairly low, said Roger Poirier of White River National Forest. Environmental assessments are conducted for relatively low-impact projects; if there were potential major effects, an environmental impact report would be compiled instead.

The environmental assessment is currently in a 30-day comment period, during which community members can share their thoughts on the report with the Forest Service, which will then take the feedback into account, in conjunction with the environmental analysis and staff recommendations, when deciding whether to allow (in whole or in part) the projects to go ahead. Based on public comments, the forest service may perform additional analysis or modify the project plans.

"We just started the comment period, so basically a month from now we're going to have a much better idea about what the public thinks of this," said Poirier.

The verdict is planned for sometime this winter.

The final decision by the Forest Service will then undergo a 45-day appeal process, and based on this feedback, the service will react or publish a final document. As this process occurs, the team at Copper will be working with their engineers to finalize designs for the project.

If and when the projects are approved by the Forest Service, Copper Mountain will begin removing trees for the alpine coaster, which is planned to be operational by Labor Day of 2017.

The environmental assessment is available at http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=48633 or at the Dillon Ranger District, the Forest Supervisor's office, or the Summit County Library, Frisco Branch.