Arapahoe Basin Ski Area receives preliminary OK on expansion plan | SummitDaily.com

Arapahoe Basin Ski Area receives preliminary OK on expansion plan

Arapahoe Basin Ski Area's vision for expansion is now nearly a reality.

On Wednesday, the White River National Forest released a final impact review and initial decision on the proposed projects, mostly endorsing the ski area's requests that date back to its 2012 development plan. If A-Basin receives ultimate approval in the coming months, its boundaries will expand by 338 acres of skiable terrain, in addition to the construction of a summer canopy tour and challenge course.

The terrain enlargement is slated for the Beavers, a presently roped-off backcountry section off the Pallavicini Lift on the western portion of the ski area. A-Basin personnel have watched the popularity of this zone that can be avalanche prone increase through the years, from an estimated couple thousand each season to 200 or more on some days and upwards of 20,000 visits annually. A-Basin looks forward to pulling the Beavers — including its Steep Gullies, expert tree skiing and bowl — into inbounds territory, so patrollers can effectively manage it.

"I believe adding lift-served terrain in the Beavers will improve the unique recreational experience offered at A-Basin while addressing safety concerns in this area," White River forest manager Scott Fitzwilliams wrote in the decision document. "This is great skiing terrain for those (who) are equipped and prepared … but the difficulty of the terrain poses serious safety risks for the many skiers who currently ski there."

“We think it’s what we need to do to keep the Basin experience high, preserve the culture and keep it the way we like it.”Alan HencerothA-Basin’s COO

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The ski area located 15 miles east of Dillon also plans for other winter enhancements, such as a new 360-foot long surface lift to the Montezuma Bowl to provide easier access for skiers who wish to head the direction of the 400-acre feature, which first opened in January 2008. Also in the request are removal of the Norway Lift — largely because of its redundancy with the Lenawee Mountain chair — and replacement chairlifts for both the Pali and Molly Hogan, which serves greens on the lower western portion of the ski area.

"Lifts are like cars in the sense that eventually you have to replace them," Alan Henceroth, A-Basin's COO, said during a March meeting on the proposed expansion. "We're not talking about changing capacity at all."

The challenge course and canopy tour are a scaled-back approach to A-Basin's summer pursuits beyond its current hiking and mountain-biking options, short disc golf course and wedding operations in the offseason. The ski area and forest staff collaborated after an earlier scoping period to scratch a possible zip line.

"For how we envision summer, it just didn't fit," said Henceroth.

Year-round activities at the nation's resorts have become fashionable of late as ownership groups look to diversify their businesses further. In Colorado, Vail Mountain and Breckenridge Ski Resort, both owned by Vail Resorts, Inc., have already moved ahead with their own summer attractions, and Powdr Corp.-owned Copper Mountain Resort also has a proposal in to do the same. Such additions on National Forest lands are permitted under the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011.

"The canopy tour and challenge course will provide opportunities for a wide variety of National Forest visitors to engage in outdoor recreation … and will match the culture of A-Basin," Fitzwilliams wrote. "Furthermore, additional multi-season activities will allow A-Basin to employ more staff year-round."

Henceroth noted during a March Board of County Commissioners work session —where Forest Service was also present —that he anticipated the ski area adding 43 more employees from the expansion. Those entail 21 year-round positions primarily related to the summer activities, 19 winter seasonal staff to cover the bonus acreage and three summer seasonals. That's on top of the 60 year-round employees A-Basin already maintains.

Mitigating Factors

The biggest points of concern with this project, raised by both members of the public and considered by the Forest Service in consultation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, include those impacts to Canada lynx habitat as well as some wetlands. Specifically, the White River anticipates approximately 63 acres of the endangered species' domain being affected due to tree thinning for the Beavers expansion, in part because of displacement of snowshoe hares, a primary lynx prey. And then, a riparian area may be disturbed mostly by replacement of the Molly Hogan chair, but efforts will be made to minimize any harm.

"I understand that the growing and changing ski area market, specifically within Summit County, is frustrating to some members of the public," wrote Fitzwilliams. "The fact is, the United States public truly loves visiting and recreating on the WRNF, and our visitation numbers confirm this. A reality of recreation of any kind on the National Forest in Summit County is the impact to wildlife."

The goal, the document points out, is to maintain a firm balance of environmental, wildlife, social, recreational, residential and commercial impacts, and conservation measures have been developed to mitigate any damages that can be prevented. Ongoing education on such matters is also a key, particularly as the state's population continues to grow and the demands on the forest widen correspondingly.

The release of these documents on Wednesday now initiates a 45-day objections period.

A-Basin plans to begin construction shortly after final permissions are granted. The Beavers will take two summers to complete, with its lift installed and ready for the 2018-19 season.

"We feel really good about our proposal, and that it will set us up for the next 20- to 30-years," said Henceroth. "We think it's what we need to do to keep the Basin experience high, preserve the culture and keep it the way we like it. We are really excited, and feel it's totally consistent with our values."