Keystone: More bowl skiing? | SummitDaily.com

Keystone: More bowl skiing?

BOB BERWYN
summit daily news

SUMMIT COUNTY ” With cat skiing operations at Keystone’s Erickson and Bergman bowls deemed a success by the resort and U.S. Forest Service, the resort is looking to open an additional 278 acres for cat skiing and hike-to access, possibly as soon as this winter.

“Everybody we’ve talked to says they want a little steeper and north-facing terrain,” said Chuck Tolton, Keystone’s director of mountain operations, describing public demand for the new terrain, which the resort for now is calling Independence Bowl.

As described in a Forest Service scoping notice, the new terrain would be on the upper reaches of the north aspect of Keystone Mountain (south of Erickson Bowl), as well as on the west and southwest aspects of Bear and Independence mountains, encompassing the head of the Jones Gulch drainage.

The proposed skiing and snowcat activities would be within Keystone’s permitted area, mostly in alpine terrain above tree line at about 11,000 feet. Snowcats would pick up guests at the Summit House or the Outpost and use established over-snow routes to access the new terrain.

Tolton said the high demand for the existing cat services to Bergman, Erickson, North and South bowls shows there is plenty of need for this type of ski experience. He estimated that the area would offer slightly more vertical than Bergman Bowl.

Tolton said he doesn’t foresee proposing any lift construction in the bowl skiing areas, at least for the next five to seven years.

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“We just don’t see the business for that type of development,” he said.

Instead, Tolton said he senses a demand for what he called a “backcountry light” ski experience ” hike-to access in terrain that offers a generally ungroomed skiing surface and sense of solitude and adventure.

Lynx concerns?

The proposal includes signage that would detail the sensitivity of wildlife resources adjacent to the area.

A large forested section of Jones Gulch below the proposed new cat skiing operation is designated as a forested wildlife movement corridor, important for lynx and other species that rely on dense timber. Federal biologists have said that information gleaned from the state’s lynx reintroduction program shows that lynx have been using Jones Gulch in recent years, though the tracking data doesn’t give an accurate sense of how important the area might be for the rare cats.

The integrity of Jones Gulch as an important wildlife area has been at issue several times in recent years. One debate centered around development of private land near the mouth of the gulch. The current forest plan zoning was also contested by Vail Resorts in an appeal of the forest plan, when attorneys for the ski company argued that the forested landscape designation could hinder future ski area activities.

The map released with the scoping notice shows that the new cat and hike-to ski terrain is not in the forested landscape corridor zone.

“We had very carefully drawn a boundary,” Tolton said, explaining that the proposal steers clear of the important wildlife area. “We’re staying above tree line … and I think we’re tracking toward a no-effect with this,” Tolton said, adding that the resort has held preliminary talks with Forest Service and state biologists, as well as with residents of nearby Montezuma, all resulting in positive feedback.

“We have a joint interest with Montezuma regarding the management of that area,” Tolton said, referring to the issue of motorized use that trickles up from Montezuma toward and sometimes even into the resort’s permitted area. “We had a good neighbor dialogue with them.”

Colorado Wild, the Durango-based Forest Service and ski industry watchdog group, will scrutinize the proposal, said Ryan Bidwell, the group’s executive director.

“Jones Gulch has been a critical area … and we’ll want to evaluate this within a cumulative perspective,” Bidwell said, referring to other proposed ski development in the general area, including the proposed lift-served expansion in A-Basin’s Montezuma Bowl.

Dillon District Ranger Rick Newton said early discussions with biologists suggest there is not a lot of concern over impacts to lynx. Part of the agency’s evaluation of the proposal includes a lynx “checklist,” with eight to 10 conditions that must be scrutinized.

“We’re staying above tree line so for the most part, the environmental issues are mostly benign,” Newton said.

Approval this season?

According to White River National Forest Supervisor Maribeth Gustafson, the agency anticipates making a decision on the plan as soon as next month under a categorical exclusion (CE), a streamlined category of review that doesn’t require detailed environmental studies.

That could change if some as-yet environmental issues crop up, Newton said, referring to a lynx screening process that will determine what level of analysis will be used to evaluate the proposal.

Approving Independence Bowl cat skiing under a categorical exclusion is the fastest way for the agency and the resort to enable operations to begin this winter. Tolton said that as he discussed the project with the agency, Newton suggested taking the CE route as a way to expedite the process.

If the project is deemed to have no effect on lynx, the Forest Service could quickly get a green light from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with managing endangered and threatened species like lynx. If it doesn’t pass the screen, the Forest Service will hold informal consultations with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Newton said.

Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.com.