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Ski resorts get room to grow

Jane Stebbins

SUMMIT COUNTY – When two children died after colliding with trees on Summit County ski slopes in January, many skiers were outraged. They cited crowded conditions – as a result of Buddy Pass holders, a lack of ski area expansion, the unwillingness of Vail Resorts to limit skier numbers on the slopes – as the primary reason for the deaths.

It’s that congestion that convinced U.S. Forest Service officials to allow up to an additional 3,306 acres of land to be opened to ski areas under the terms of the White River National Forest Plan. The plan, which was five years in the making, was released Tuesday. It strives to mix recreational uses with biological resources, while still providing for the waning uses of timber and grazing. The plan is updated every 10 to 15 years and addresses how national forest lands will be managed.

According to Forest Service data, Summit County is expected to get between 40 and 50 percent of the growth in skier visits in the next 10 years – most of it originating from new Front Range residents.

Currently, the most crowded ski resort in Summit County is Breckenridge, which averages 687 skiers per acre. The national average is about half that. Breckenridge is followed by Keystone with 653 skiers per acre and Arapahoe Basin with 498 skiers.

Under the new plan, ski area boundaries at all four Summit County ski areas have been adjusted to lower skier densities, avoid impacts to wildlife and provide the type of terrain that meets visitors expectations and ability levels.

The acreage allocated for potential expansion under the 1984 plan is 17 percent larger than that allocated under the new plan, but more than that in Alternative D, the option Forest Service officials originally proposed. The acreage allocated for expansion, however, is 48 percent more than what is currently developed, said Dillon District Ranger Jamie Connell.

“There are areas the ski areas would have like to have seen included, but we weren’t able to accommodate them because of other conflicts,” Connell said. “We do believe we have kept enough acreage to allow for a healthy and safe skiing environment. If we don’t do it, it won’t relieve the congestion.”

Local resorts

In Breckenridge, North America’s second-most popular resort, the Forest Plan will allocate 5,553 acres for downhill and Nordic skiing. Areas that still will be available – that were also allowed under the 1984 plan – include Carter Bowl above timberline on Peak 10, terrain above the existing ski area on Peaks 8 and 9, terrain below Peak 6, and South Barton Gulch to Peak 5. Deleted from the 1984 plan is terrain below Peak 4, North Barton Creek and Gold Hill above Summit High School.

“A bunch of that stuff we felt wasn’t suitable for skiing, so we said, “take it out,'” said Rick Sramek, director of mountain operations at the resort. “At the same time, we asked for more terrain on Peak 6 and 5. We look at this terrain as potential ski terrain for the future.”

Keystone’s allocated acreage will remain the same, at 8,376 acres, and include Independence Mountain, part of Jones Gulch and West Ridge as areas of potential ski area expansion. Most of the terrain allocated on Independence Mountain is above treeline. Forest Service officials say the terrain there is unlike other trails at the resort, with wide-open bowl skiing, extremely steep terrain on the northwest face of the mountain and snow conditions more unique to colder temperatures at higher elevations.

The 1984 Forest Plan allocated 2,479 acres to Arapahoe Basin, and will decrease that to 1,913 acres under the new plan. But the new boundaries will allow mountain operations officials to manage conditions in Montezuma Basin and the popular Beavers area, which are prone to avalanches.

Marjorie Basin, on the east side of A-Basin, has been removed from the boundaries because of high avalanche danger and to protect old growth timber.

Copper Mountain Resort is the only Summit County resort that will see an increase in allocated acreage under the new plan. The increase, from 6,525 acres to 7,551 acres, will allow the possibility for expansion onto Tucker Mountain and Jacque Peak, where there are opportunities for extreme skiing terrain. Extending the boundary to include these areas will simplify boundary management, avalanche control and ski patrol rescue, Connell said.

Land on the east side of Ten Mile Creek that was previously included in the Forest Plan has now been deleted to reduce potential conflicts with wetlands. Stafford, Smith and Wilder creek areas also have been eliminated to accommodate lynx habitat.

The Breckenridge Nordic Center, which is under permit from the Forest Service, will see an increase in allocated acreage, from 1,488 acres in 1984 to 1,535 acres in the revised plan. The allocation will allow Gene and Terese Dayton, who operate the Nordic center, to work with the Breckenridge Ski Resort to allow a mixture of the two sports in the area.

“Big, complicated document’

Roger McCarthy, chief operations officer for the Breckenridge Ski Resort is on vacation, and Andy Daly, chief executive officer for Vail Resorts is in New York this week and unavailable for comment. Other ski area officials – some of whom are in Denver for a Colorado Ski Country meeting – said Wednesday they haven’t had time to peruse the 200-page overview of the plan, much less the accompanying 1,000-page Environmental Impact Statement.

“I’m just glad we got it,” Sramek said. “I’m glad we got something we can start working with. It’s just taken so darn long.”

“The Forest Service had that document for one-and-a-half years and we’ve had it for 24 hours,” said Beth Jahnigen, communications coordinator at Copper Mountain Resort. “We haven’t had time to dig through it.”

“Given the complexity of the plan, we feel we need more time to study it and the accompanying maps before we can provide thoughtful comments,” said Kelly Ladyga, director of corporate communications for Vail Resorts. “We haven’t had enough time. There are lots of questions.”

Even Connell hasn’t heard much comment from people picking up documents at the Forest Service office in Silverthorne.

“I’m just handing stuff out,” she said. “And it’s too early to tell. It’s a very big complicated document.”

Details of the plan

Wednesday: Overview

Thursday: Ski Resorts

Friday: Wildlife/Environment

Tuesday: Timber, mining, grazing

Open house

WHEN: June 17, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

WHERE: Dillon Ranger District, Silverthorne

INFO: District Ranger Jamie Connell, 262-3451

Today in Denver: Colorado ski resorts announce skier visits for the 2001-2002 season. See Friday’s Summit Daily News for more information.

Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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