Powder hounds press for open boundaries | SummitDaily.com

Powder hounds press for open boundaries

Summit Daily/Brad Odekirk

SUMMIT COUNTY – The proposal to add lift-served skiing in A-Basin’s Montezuma Bowl could spur a wider discussion about access to National Forest backcountry areas adjacent to local resorts.”We’d like to start a dialogue with the community about … starting to re-open more access,” said U.S. Forest Service Dillon District Ranger Rick Newton. “But there’s a lot of baggage associated with that,” he added, referring to a deadly 1987 avalanche on Peak 7 in Breckenridge that prompted the current policy, which strictly limits access – more so than in other parts of Colorado and around the West.A regional Forest Service policy specifically addresses the agency’s obligation to provide “reasonable access” to national forest lands adjacent to developed ski areas. But that phrase is open to considerable interpretation. The ski areas around Aspen, for example, provide liberal access to the backcountry. In Summit County, by contrast, three of the four ski areas are almost completely surrounded by regulatory Forest Service closures.”We want to have this discussion,” Newton said, adding that local law enforcement officials will be a critical part of the dialogue.The access issue came up locally last week, when Forest Service rangers, A-Basin officials and local backcountry skiers met at the ski area for a site visit. A planner with Frisco-based SE Group was also on hand to hear the discussion. SE Group is the private consulting company that will work with the resort and Forest Service on developing the Environmental Impact Statement for A-Basin’s plan.Several long-time A-Basin skiers and snowboarders advocated for fewer restrictions.The civil liberties of backcountry skiers are being taken away by access limits, said Summit resident Billy Anthony, calling on local resorts to look at Jackson Hole’s access policy as a potential management model. Anthony said that, while the U.S. takes pride in a philosophy of personal freedom, when it comes to skiing, he feels more freedom in Europe, where he’s can ski pretty much anywhere at his own risk.

Anthony asked for a more direct path into the “Steep Gulllies,” a notoriously avalanche-prone area just west of the ski area, while Bob Mayer, another local backcountry enthusiast, said the ski area should consider providing a re-entry point low on the mountain to enable backcountry travelers to return to the parking area.Forest Service rangers said it’s hard to compare Summit County with Jackson Hole, given the extremely high density of skiers at local resorts. That factor alone makes boundary management a much more challenging issue.Public safetyA-Basin general manager Alan Henceroth cautioned that the ski area needs to carefully manage access with an eye toward public safety.”We want to make sure that no one gets into the backcountry by mistake … and that they know the difference (between the backcountry and designated in-bounds terrain),” Henceroth said.Other concerns centered on whether and how l operations in Montezuma Bowl will affect access to terrain east and west of the proposed new lift-served terrain. Standing on the ridge above the Lenawee chair, near the site of the top terminal of the proposed lift, Henceroth said the ski area would consider replacing the existing access point (above the top of Norway chair) with two new points, farther to the east and west.

“We’ll be losing one of our really good backcountry access areas,” Anthony said. “There’s a lot of people that don’t want to see that lift go in. But hopefully they’ll work with us. We have to have smart access points. Hopefully, the thing that replaces (the Norway access) will be just as good.”Other comments focused on access from the new lift-served area down to Montezuma Road. Henceroth said early feedback from Montezuma residents shows they don’t want more skiers coming down to the road. But the backcountry users told Henceroth and Newton that access to Montezuma Road is an important part of the management equation.Henceroth said he thinks the new lift, if approved, would actually cut down on the number of people skiing down to the road.Approval processThe comments garnered at the A-Basin session will be incorporated into the Environmental Impact Statement currently under development, Newton said. While a public scoping phase for the project is over, Newton said comments can be submitted any time during the planning process.

The Forest Service hopes to complete the draft study before the end of this season, when there would be another extensive chance for public review and comment. A final decision is expected as soon as fall or early winter of this year, according to Henceroth. If approved, the new lift could be built in time for the 2007-2008 season. Forest Service officials described that as a tentative timeline that’s subject subject to change, depending on what issues are identified during the environmental study.The draft study will include several different alternatives, which may reflect the access-point discussion. The various draft alternatives may include different configurations of access points, enabling planners and the public to make a side-by-side comparison of the different choices.Henceroth said that, based on preliminary studies, the ski area expects the terrain addition to result in a 10 to 15 percent increase in skier visits. The new lift (along with an upgrade to Exhibition chair) will give the area 46 percent more uphill capacity, helping to spread out skiers and maintain the quality of the A-Basin ski experience, Henceroth said.A 1982 master plan for A-Basin included the potential for up to four lifts in Montezuma Bowl, but the area was taken out of the ski area allocation in 1987, following the Peak 7 slide, Henceroth said, explaining the history of the area.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970 331-5996, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.com.

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