Forest Service approves backcountry skiing hut near Breckenridge
Summit County winter backcountry enthusiasts will soon have one more hut to huddle in near Breckenridge.
Or at least they will in three or four years after the Summit Huts Association finishes construction of the Weber Hut, estimated to cost between $1 million and $2 million.
White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams signed the final decision Wednesday, June 17, and his approval came after four years of the U.S. Forest Service’s formal analysis and review process and after many years before that of work and preparation.
“It’s a great feeling for the organization,” said Jack Wolfe, one of the association’s board members, adding that countless people with Summit Huts Association and the Forest Service have helped improve the project over the years.
Still, he was hesitant to celebrate.
“It’s kind of like running the first half of the marathon,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
A LONG TIME COMING
Its newest hut is so named because it will be in Weber Gulch, on the north aspect of Bald Mountain, at roughly 11,500 feet. The structure will be one or two stories and 1,400 to 2,000 square feet.
The hut will join the association’s four other huts: the historic Section House and Ken’s Cabin along Boreas Pass, Janet’s Cabin near Copper Mountain (opened in 1991) and Francie’s Cabin south of Breckenridge (opened in 1995).
At the association’s other huts, demand outstrips supply, and folks looking to book a night on a weekend or during a popular holiday must contend with a lottery system.
A hut in the Weber Gulch area was part of the original master plan for the Summit Huts Association, developed with the Forest Service through a public community vision process in the late 1980s.
The association narrowed potential sites for the hut from 23 to five to one and changed many aspects of the proposal based on input from residents and local governments.
The hut’s access route went through half a dozen versions. Guests will use Sallie Barber Road, Nightmare on Baldy Trail and then 1.3 miles of new trail to arrive at the hut.
The Upper Trail of Tears singletrack trail will be widened for administrative ATV access in the summer, but motorized use by the public will be prohibited with gates and signs.
The hut’s environmental assessment analyzed all kinds of impacts to the surrounding environment and addressed public concerns that centered on wildlife issues — specifically habitat for Canada lynx, pine martens and elk — and off-site parking for the hut’s users.
Though the environmental assessment was prepared for a hut that sleeps 16 people, the hut will actually be built with a capacity of 14 guests as compared to the 20 guests accommodated at each of Francie’s and Janet’s cabins.
Wolfe said the Weber Hut, which has been the hut’s working name, will be about 3 or 3.5 miles from the trailhead and will appeal to all types of hut users.
“Right outside the hut going uphill is some really beautiful north-facing skiing,” he said. “There’s going to be great skiing right outside the door.”
LYNX, PARKING CONSIDERATIONS
The hut was not without opponents.
Dillon Ranger District deputy district ranger Cynthia Keller said some people were against any new huts because they believe backcountry skiing areas should be left alone.
Addressing public feedback was part of the reason the required National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process took four years instead of the usual two for a proposal of this size.
“It wasn’t a slam-dunk project,” Keller said. “We did have some controversy.”
She said the Forest Service received three formal objections after the draft decision was released in July 2014.
One was about impacts to Canada lynx habitat, and Keller said the Forest Service had already analyzed impacts to lynx and decided to close the hut and the new trail built to access it during the summers. The hut will be open from the third week of November through April 30.
Keller said lynx suffer when humans compact snow in their habitat because other predators can then use the trails to hunt snowshoe hare and compete with the lynx.
The Forest Service also closed a heavily-forested area north and below the hut to skiing because of lynx habitat impacts and administrators will monitor unauthorized use there.
As part of the response to the objection, the Forest Service gained written support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which protects the threatened lynx listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and added the monitoring plan for the closed skiing area to the environmental analysis.
Also to protect wildlife, dogs will not be allowed, and outdoor lighting will be kept minimal, like at most backcountry huts. Plus, hut guests use snowmelt for their water, and Keller said no one wants to use yellow snow from dog waste.
The other two objections were about parking, always a hot topic in and around Breckenridge.
Someone suggested hut visitors be required to ride the Summit Stage bus to the Bald Mountain Trailhead to access the hut.
“We all decided that that just wasn’t feasible,” Keller said. Hut users will still have that option but won’t be required to bus.
The third objection came from an adjacent private property owner, who met with the Forest Service and the Summit Huts Association several times. The groups decided to move the hut’s parking lot a little away from the property.
The parking lot, east of the Sallie Barber Road Trailhead on the north side of French Gulch Road, will hold about 17 vehicles and will only be open to the public during hut operations.
Keller said years of extensive field work, limited to summertime, also led to the especially long NEPA process.
“We did a lot of field work for this project to make sure it was in the right place,” she said.
Now that the environmental assessment is finished, the association will raise funds, design the hut and start construction.
Weber will incorporate what has worked at the other huts, with indoor restrooms, a comfortable layout with bedrooms that sleep two to six people, passive and active solar and construction that will save energy costs of heating the structure with a wood-burning stove.
Wolfe said he hopes to establish an endowment for maintenance during fundraising.
“If we had all the money and we had all the plans done, we could be done in two years,” he said. “We’d like to do it in three or four years if we could.”
For more information about this project, contact the Summit Huts Association at (970) 453-8583 or the Dillon Ranger District at (970) 468-5400.
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