Breckenridge Ski Resort summer expansion gets final approval

Employees at Adventure Ridge on Vail Mountain receive training on the ropes challenge course. Breckenridge's proposed expansion will include similar activities which officials say are designed to expose guests to the outdoors.
Mark Hendrickson | Vail Resorts |

New summer attractions are officially coming soon to Breckenridge Ski Resort.

The U.S. Forest Service announced on Monday its final decision on Vail Resorts’ so-called Epic Discovery summer activities project for Breckenridge, approving a plan dating back to 2013. The White River National Forest’s approval for year-round usage lays the stage for a mix of new features throughout the resort, among them zip lines, a climbing wall, observation tower, hiking and biking trails.

“The activities are not all about thrill and adventure,” Roger Poirier, the Forest Service’s team leader on the project, said in a news release. “The project includes a number of interpretive and educational activities and exhibits as well.”

The original proposal was permitted via 2011’s Ski Area Recreational Opportunities Enhancement Act, sponsored by then-U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) and signed by President Obama, giving the go-ahead to existing ski resorts nationwide already operating on federal lands to pursue summer recreation activities. The law updated the National Forest Ski Permit Act of 1986, which limited mountain recreation to only alpine and Nordic skiing.

With the approval, Breckenridge becomes the third leg of Vail Resorts’ overarching plan, after similar concepts were green-lighted for Vail Mountain in October 2014 and Heavenly in Lake Tahoe, California in May. Future summer expansion for Vail’s other four resorts, Beaver Creek, Keystone, as well as Kirkwood and Northstar in California, are expected down the road.

While representatives of Breckenridge and Vail Resorts were pleased with the final stamp of approval for the project from the Forest Service, some local activists are not as enthusiastic. Issues voiced during both the original scoping and environment impact statement periods ranged from unease over the impact of increased numbers of visitors to the area because of the activities to the impact on wildlife habitats and behavior.

Others, like longtime Breckenridge resident Leigh Girvin raised concerns over the amount — and intensity — of the new attractions, particularly in sensitive areas of the land.

“The activities are getting uncomfortably close to the definition of an amusement park,” said Girvin, who identifies herself as a community activist and environmental advocate. “I’m still of the opinion that zip lines and canopy tours in particular start to border on that. These technologies are always advancing, to the point of being more like a chairlift,” she said, adding, “It sure looks like something out of Six Flags to me.”

Poirier, the forest’s mountain sports program manager, said that the Forest Service and resort worked hand-in-hand throughout the process, going back and forth several times, to ensure the accepted activities fit within the agency’s goals as well as the general forest plan. Changes were also made based on public input, and he pointed to a handful of activities, namely those on the higher portion of the mountain, being adjusted or eliminated altogether. Those included reducing the amount and locations of trails for hiking and mountain biking and relocating the observation deck.

Initial estimates for what impact the summer additions could have on the region — such as the total number of new visitors and actual consequences on the local economy — are, at this point, imprecise. A 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate indicated that among the 122 ski areas inhabiting 180,000 acres of land nationwide, the summer expansion program will eventually net 600,000 more national forest visits, $40 million infused into mountain communities, and an expected 600 additional full- or part-time jobs.

Early local figures, based on just two or three years of summer planning, suggest somewhere around 150,000 new summer callers to Breckenridge, but other effects remain unclear. “There’s no crystal ball for the exact number of guests and financial benefits to community,” said Poirier, contacted by phone. “We have a much better idea of the ebb and flow of the skier market.” He also noted that summer out-of-town guests have shown to be a different demographic.

Construction on the brand new Epic Discovery at Breckenridge is currently scheduled to begin summer 2016, with some of the attractions ready by the following summer.

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