Scientists disagree about gondola impacts along Cucumber Gulch
BRECKENRIDGE – Nick Roe, a biologist with IRIS Environmental Systems, says a gondola through Cucumber Gulch will not result in “;substantial degradation”; to the wetlands or the animals that live there.
Robert Henke of Scientific Applications International Corp. says it will.
And residents who attended a public hearing about the Breckenridge Ski Resort’s proposed gondola last Thursday urged the planning commission to pursue the proposal with caution – or stop studying the issue and proceed with the approval process.
The presentation attracted about 75 people to town hall to listen to biologists discuss the potential impacts of a gondola on the hundreds of plant and animal species in the gulch on Peak 8. The town spent $4.75 million last year to purchase 25 acres in the area to protect it from encroaching development. Under town guidelines, nothing is allowed in that designated area where sensitive wetlands and fens exist.
In an effort to provide a seamless experience for skiers and reduce traffic on Ski Hill Road, ski area officials have proposed a 23-tower, eight-person gondola from Watson parking lot to Peak 7 and 8. To get there, however, the gondola needs to pass through the wetlands, and will need a variance to do so.
According to Roe, Cucumber Gulch has seen major changes in the past, including forest fires, mining, logging, hunting and in recent years, year-round recreation, sediment pond failures and beaver pond augmentation that might have affected boreal toad populations.
“Nearly all the species in this area have evolved in a changing environment,” Roe said. “It’s not the same as a rain forest, where there’s no change for hundreds of years.”
Roe cited a gondola in Banff, Alberta, Canada, under which moose, deer, coyote, cougar and elk migrate and forage. To ensure similar success with Breckenridge’s gondola, the ski area proposes to erect a system that doesn’t make much noise, outfit windows with screens to prevent people from tossing trash into the wetlands, no exterior lighting and allow vegetation to grow up to 15 feet tall, the maximum allowed by lift inspectors.
Roe also outlined a construction schedule and mitigation plan that would work around animal migration, calving and breeding seasons.
Henke said the efforts aren’t enough to mitigate another stressor on the wetlands. Currently, homes line the gulch, and people cross-country ski, mountain bike, hike and walk their dogs through the area. He added IRIS’s study didn’t address indirect impacts, such as soil disturbance, the effects of cutting trees and opening up the land underneath and the effects of gondola maintenance and emergency evacuations on the wetlands.
“The only real mitigation I thought of that could offset the impacts is an alternative alignment to avoid going through the gulch,” Henke said, adding in the ski area’s own variance request it was noted an aerial disturbance would fragment and reduce habitat. “If you want to eliminate the impacts, the gondola needs to be out of the gulch.”
Tom Kroenig of the Colorado Division of Wildlife said a gondola that divides a wetlands area would likely have more impact than one that skirts the edges. But ski area officials pointed out they have looked at numerous alignments, and the best one is through the gulch.
Residents were equally divided.
“Right now, there are snowcats, bikes, hikers, dogs and cross-country skiers there,” said Tom Day of Breckenridge. “I’ve seen moose, elk and bear under the gondola at Keystone. It doesn’t affect them at all. Someone hiking through this area with a dog has much more impact than a gondola.”
“The town spent $5 million to purchase a gem,” said Peak 8 resident Jeffrey Bergeron. “Now you’re considering putting something through the gem … I’d advise you to look long and hard at it.”
Others said they were tired of the town conducting studies and wanted the council to proceed.
“This is so much ado about nothing, I can’t believe it,” said Jerry Cooney of Farmer’s Korner. “This area’s been burnt, it’s been clear-cut, it’s been timbered, it’s been mined. A gondola is far and away the least impact in this area.”
Commissioner Dave Hinton said the process has taken so long because town officials want to do it right.
“Two, five, 10, 20 years down the road, we want to look back and say, ‘Yeah, it was a pain, but we did it right and we have a better town for it,” he said. “We have a damn good town, and we’re trying not to screw that up.”
“We all have a warm fuzzy feeling about Cucumber Gulch, but it’s circled by roads, it’s girdled by development, it’s criss-crossed by trails,” said commissioner Dave Pringle. “It’s hard for me to say a gondola is going to be the one thing that will throw it over the edge and ruin the gulch. The town is looking to move forward, and the gondola is an elemental function of that movement. It’s part of our future.”
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