Forest Service finishes up fieldwork for Breckenridge Ski Resort summer expansion analysis
October 3, 2014
The arrival of autumn snow marks a mad rush for everyone. The animals gorge before hibernation, the ski resorts race to make snow and the Forest Service hurries to finish fieldwork before its specialists can no longer see the bare ground.
For all the federal agency's acronyms and jargon, the Forest Service's environmental analysis process sometimes means a botanist simply hikes around a ski resort looking for a rare ancient fern called moonwort.
On Monday, Sept. 22, Dillon Ranger District snow ranger Shelly Grail Braudis took some time out of her busiest season of the year to show a reporter where Breckenridge Ski Resort has proposed adding features as part of its summer activities expansion project.
"I had so many delicious strawberries while I was out in the field this season," she said, describing the fruit, including raspberries, that covered the open slopes for a short while. Now she remarked about the beauty of fall and the yellows, oranges and reds on the grasses and shrubs.
As we hiked around the ski runs, ambling through patches of trees with soft, squishy earth underfoot, she said the Forest Service has been gathering information for months to create a lengthy document for the project called an environmental impact statement, or EIS.
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The Forest Service constantly talks with resort officials about future projects before the resort ever formally submits a proposal.
"We want to make sure that they understand what the issues are going to be," Grail Braudis said, adding that the Forest Service aims to have those conversations early and often to limit surprises and help the resort fine-tune its final proposal.
For the Breckenridge summer expansion project, the environmental analysis formally began when the Forest Service's interdisciplinary team sat down together in early March.
The team — which includes a botanist, hydrologist, wildlife biologist, fisheries biologist, soil scientist, landscape architect and archaelogist — pored over a map of the proposal.
"What are your initial red flags?" Grail Braudis said the group asks.
The scientists overlaid the project proposal map with their own maps for specific resources and brought up concerns to be analyzed in the summer field season.
Most of the fieldwork is done individually or in small groups, like when the hydrologist and fisheries biologist tromp around in streams together to measure sediment and bugs.
Grail Braudis said the whole team of about 10 people reconvenes after the public comment period and makes at least one field visit together. The team might meet more times depending on the issues to be discussed.
AVOID, MINIMIZE, MITIGATE
At Breckenridge, Grail Braudis and I hopped from rock to rock around a wetlands area on Peak 7, and I stopped to touch the cotton-like parts of the riparian willows.
Of all the features proposed, Grail Braudis said, the ones that stand out most to her are the two long zip lines, three canopy tours and new mountain biking trails.
Most of the resort's mountain biking trails are on Peak 8, and the resort has proposed adding more on Peak 7, near where we stood.
That same Monday, Forest Service hydrologist Justin Anderson walked down the proposed bike trails with a ski resort representative and the resort's trail design contractor.
Anderson looked at drainage issues and discussed where trails would need to be rerouted around streams or wetlands areas, while the resort representative explained the rationale behind the proposed trail routes.
"They're telling us what kind of experience they're trying to deliver," Anderson said. "It's important to us to make sure we're avoiding impacts if we can or minimizing impacts if they can't be entirely avoided."
Brail Graudis said she jokes the Forest Service should get shirts that say "avoid, minimize, mitigate," an often repeated phrase among agency specialists.
A DRAMATIC DROP
Standing at the top of the Peak 8 SuperConnect chair, we tried to visualize the most dramatic of the proposed zip lines.
It would start where we stood before zooming toward a tower at the top of the Volunteer run on Peak 9. At its highest point, people would fly across the gulch about 600 feet above the ground. That's about 60 stories up.
The zip line would cross the gulch again, slightly closer to the ground this time, before landing near the top of one of the terrain parks.
A canopy tour would start in the same place at the top of the SuperConnect, but instead of crossing Sawmill Gulch, Grail Braudis said, it would zigzag down Peak 8. The other canopy tour proposals have similar designs.
Walking toward Vista Haus, she said the resort proposed a challenge course and observation tower slightly above and skier's left of the restaurant.
The Forest Service landscape architect works to figure out how the project's features could blend in with their natural surroundings, she explained. For example, how could some of the large towers be hidden behind trees?
Unlike the rest of the team members, the archaeologist hasn't done as much walking around the resort for this project because the area was extensively surveyed for artifacts and items of historical significance in the 1980s and '90s. His job involves mainly computer mapping and paperwork.
In contrast, the botanist explored the resort in the middle of summer and walked along the proposed new hiking trails, which would enter the bowls above the Colorado and Independence chairs, looking for indicator species and sensitive species, like strawberries that grow next to moonworts.
We drove up and down bumpy access roads to check out sediment traps built to lessen the effects of erosion.
For water drainage issues, Grail Braudis said, the Forest Service coordinates and collaborates with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
For wildlife concerns, she and her specialists work with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Any new structure must go through a permitting process with Summit County Building Inspection Department.
Forest Service specialists generally hike around the resort with representatives from those agencies, discuss the finer points of the proposal and factor their comments into decisions. For example, the Forest Service decided not to allow summer use at the Summit Huts Association's latest hut in the Weber Gulch area based on Parks and Wildlife recommendations.
For the Breckenridge project, the wildlife biologist visited over and over in the spring and summer to do bird nesting surveys, inspect snowshoe hare habitat quality and play owl call recordings and listen for real calls in return.
AFTER THE FACT
After the Forest Service finishes the EIS, the ski area must follow the requirements of the document, like applying the specific amount of compost the soil scientist said the resort should buy and spread around impacted areas in a certain way.
Once the ski area completes its proposed project, the work still isn't over. The document often contains stipulations.
For example, the Peak 6 expansion required the resort to help enhance lynx habitat elsewhere, Grail Braudis said, so Vail Resorts has contributed to the Swan River restoration project and a recent land conservation purchase near Montezuma by the Summit County Open Space and Trails Department.
The Forest Service also will continue to monitor, for the next four seasons, the number of skiers and snowboarders who leave the Peak 6 boundaries to enjoy the backcountry. Grail Braudis said in the last couple of weeks she installed more infrared counters aimed at people's midsections to record how many people pass.
The Forest Service, as a government agency, and its employees can't take positions on whether they think the summer expansion and its parts are good or bad.
People opposed to the idea of expansion should contact their representatives, who have pushed legislation that supports expansion, Grail Braudis said. She was referring to Sen. Mark Udall's 2011 Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, which amended the 1986 National Forest Ski Area Permit Act to allow and encourage the Forest Service to permit ski area activities beyond Nordic and alpine skiing.