Pitkin County wants deep dive on environmental consequences of Aspen Mtn ski area expansion | SummitDaily.com

Pitkin County wants deep dive on environmental consequences of Aspen Mtn ski area expansion

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

Aspen Mountain has a retention pond near the base of the Gentlemen's Ridge lift. More storage ponds are planned for an expanded snowmaking system, but Pitkin County wants to know how it will affect local streams.

Pitkin County wants to make sure Aspen Skiing Co. puts its action where its sentiments are when it comes to climate change and other environmental issues.

The county urged the U.S. Forest Service in a letter Friday to take a close look at the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions associated with a proposed expansion of the snowmaking system and the addition of a chairlift at Aspen Mountain.

"Proposed improvements should be designed to minimize fossil fuel energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions to the greatest extent possible," the county's letter said. "Furthermore, we recommend that Aspen Skiing Co. be required to fully offset energy used to accommodate improvements and associated operations."

The letter was drafted by the community development staff and endorsed by the county commissioners with minor revisions at their meeting Tuesday. The county didn't express opposition to the Skico plan but asked that the Forest Service undertake a deep dive on certain issues and require mitigation. The county also noted that Skico must submit an application to amend the Aspen Mountain Ski/Recreation Master Development Plan. Parts of the Pandora expansion that are on private lands will require review under various county land-use and building code provisions, according to county officials.

The letter was submitted to the White River National Forest on Friday — the deadline for the public to comment on Skico's expansion plans on Aspen Mountain.

The Forest Service website indicates the agency had received 12 comments on the proposal as of 4 p.m. Friday. Additional comments are expected to arrive by mail.

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Skico submitted an application to the Forest Service in January to add about 153 acres of terrain in an area known as Pandora, on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain. Skico wants to install a lift to serve that new terrain.

Skico also proposed expanding its snowmaking system to cover an additional five trails and about 50 acres of terrain on the upper section of the mountain. The current snowmaking system covers 172 acres.

The existing snowmaking system typically uses 50 million gallons of water, with most of it supplied by Aspen's domestic supply. The expansion would require another 10 million gallons of water, Skico estimated in its application. Skico wants to build storage ponds to supply the additional snowmaking system. A pumping station would be constructed for the operation.

Pitkin County's letter encouraged the Forest Service to examine whether increased water use on the mountain will effect the amount of water flowing through Castle Creek, Maroon Creek and other water sources and, if so, if minimum streamflows will be maintained.

The county also is concerned about how surface runoff from expanded snowmaking could affect the base of the mountain in the spring and early summer.

Skico's application said snowmaking operations would typically cease in January. The ponds will remain empty until runoff starts. They would be allowed to fill and water would be maintained near capacity rather than added to runoff.

Pitkin County also raised concerns that expansion into an area with minimal use could affect elk.

"Snowmaking capacity improvements may be a necessity to facilitate ongoing ski-area operations, given climate-change related weather trends," the letter said. "However, modification of the ski permit boundary to bring a chairlift, new access road, gladed and traditional run improvements into an area currently used as unimproved side-country terrain, will increase winter use in an area where use has historically been moderated by limited access."

Skico plans seasonal closures, time restrictions or both, the county noted, but the rules would only be effective if enforced.

Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communication, said company officials haven't had a chance to review the comments submitted on the project yet. Company officials may respond at a later time, he said.

T.J. Broom, mountain sports lead on the White River National Forest, said the Forest Service staff will examine the public comments and look for substantive issues they can respond to. The agency has determined it will perform an Environmental Analysis on the project rather than a more extensive Environmental Impact Statement because the components of the project were foreseen in the Aspen Mountain Master Development Plan. The draft assessment is currently scheduled for release in early October, Broom said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

In addition to Pitkin County, 11 individuals had submitted comments as of 4 p.m. Friday about the expansion of Aspen Mountain into the Pandora area and expanded snowmaking at the mountaintop. Following is a sample of what the public is saying.

• “I would prefer to see the terrain including Pandora and Harris’ stay outside the boundaries of the ski area to preserve the wild experience. Also, a new lift station on Richmond Ridge south of the top of the gondola will spoil the user experience in that area. There is already plenty of terrain in the ski area.” — Nick Thompson, Carbondale

• “These proposed improvements will provide a significant beneficial economic impact to the City of Aspen and surrounding communities through excitement over new terrain and greater confidence amongst tourist to visit earlier in the ski season. More terrain and snow making at higher elevations insures a greater product to all citizens and foreign nationals who choose to spend money in our community.” — Richard Stumpf II, Carbondale

• “Skiing is a declining activity and future use will decline inevitably but forest cannot be replaced. I urge rejection of any expansion into forest lands.” — Andy Abul, Alpine, Wyoming

• “The Ski Corp is flagrantly adding to its environmental footprint by proposing more snowmaking and adding to terrain. … The ski Corp talks environmental stewardship but is only concerned with its bottom line.” — Gerald Terwilliger, Basalt

• “This plan is half baked at best! ASC wants to remove the absolute best gladed skiing on Ajax to groom it and cater to their Aspen Mountain Club Members. The snow and terrain on the east side is unique and should never be developed in this way.” — Mike Kashinski, Aspen

• “The expansion of terrain and snowmaking is desperately needed to improve the snow sports experience on the mountain. These improvements are long overdue and address the two most important factors, snow quality and terrain variety. — Eric Gieszi, Austin, Texas