Colorado Wild has gondola "issues’
BRECKENRIDGE – Jonathan Staufer of Colorado Wild isn’t totally opposed to Breckenridge Ski Resort’s proposed gondola.
But he believes a variance granted by town planning commissioners that will allow a gondola to cross protected wetlands in Cucumber Gulch violates the town’s regulations governing the area.
A half-dozen residents spoke out in favor – and later, applauded – the commission’s decision Monday night to allow a gondola to cross a Preventive Management Area (PMA), which has been delineated by biologists as significant to the ecosystem health in the area.
Staufer had to leave the meeting before public comments were taken, he said. But issues he – and Colorado Wild, the environmental group he represents – has with the variance approval are the same ones biologists and officials from the ski area and town have debated for almost two years: impacts to elk and other species in the gulch, substantial degradation of wildlife and vegetation, habitat fragmentation created by the gondola corridor bisecting the PMA and whether there is a better alignment alternative.
“Normally, the PMA restricts construction of a gondola; it doesn’t meet criteria,” town attorney Tim Berry said during the meeting Monday. “But when the PMA ordinance was drafted, it realized this. It said a variance request would be permitted.”
One of the PMA regulations says the “granting of the variance will not result in substantial degradation of the natural and wildlife features of Cucumber Gulch.”
Biologists hired by the ski resort stated in previous meetings that gondola construction and operations would cause negligible impacts to anything in the gulch. Ski resort officials outlined a list of preventive and mitigation efforts they plan to take to offset any damage.
Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) officials and biologists retained by the town, however, said construction and operation of a gondola in the gulch would damage the ecosystem.
In a letter to planning commissioners encouraging them to deny the variance request, Staufer cited a CDOW report that said the Westin Lift at Vail and another lift at Steamboat prove aerial lifts impact area wildlife.
“The first couple of years after the lift was installed, the elk did feed in the area at night,” the CDOW report reads. “But as lift use and skiing both increased, night use by the elk has decreased by 50 percent.”
Other declines were seen in elk populations in the China Bowl at Vail, constructed in 1989, the report reads. Other Vail bowls – Tea Cup, Mongolia and Siberia – have not seen the same decreases, but they don’t have lifts serving their terrain.
Staufer refutes an Vail-sponsored IRIS biology study that tracked elk migration patterns in Banff, Alberta, Canada, and indicated elk weren’t affected by the gondola there.
“The methodology must be questioned,” Staufer said. “For instance, IRIS offers no explanation of the differences or similarities in terrain, geology, plant cover or hydrology between the Sulphur Mountain gondola location and Cucumber Gulch. Notably, a precipitous drop in elk tracks (in Banff) can be seen between 1997, before the gondola was constructed, and 1999, when it was completed.”
He also believes the hydrology of the wetlands will be affected.
“Change in the permanent hydrology to the wetlands, if brought about by gondola construction, maintenance and additional human incursion, could prove devastating to the population of boreal toads in Cucumber Gulch,” he said. “Changes … could include freezing, flooding or drying out of habitat critical to their survival.”
Staufer also said clearing trees to make way for the 50-foot-wide corridor required by the state Tramway Board will open up areas previously safe from airborne predation, further diminishing the toad’s likelihood of survival in the area.
Clearing trees also will open the area to non-native species, Staufer said.
“The need to clear corridors … will result in a loss of habitat, increase fragmentation for all interior species and favor undesirable species (mostly cowbirds) that are out-competing native species,” CDOW wrote. “This impact will not just be to big game, but to small animals and spring green-up times from snow compaction.”
Colorado Wild, which often opposes ski area expansions and the development that funds them, advocates a gondola alignment that skirts the PMA to the south, perhaps moving the base of the gondola closer to the center of town.
While these alternatives may pose some inconvenience to Vail Resorts, they would benefit a larger segment of Breckenridge’s population by upholding the ordinance they put in place to protect Cucumber Gulch, Staufer said.
Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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