Year of the cat?
December 14, 2005
SUMMIT COUNTY – If the U.S. Forest Service authorizes an expansion of cat-served and hike-to terrain at Keystone under a categorical exclusion (CE), it could set a precedent for incremental expansions at other resorts without proper environmental review and public involvement, a Durango-based environmental group said Wednesday.”A CE is always a red flag for us,” said Colorado Wild’s Ryan Demmy Bidwell. Keystone wants to open an additional 278 acres on Independence and Bear mountains in terrain that is mostly above tree line, encompassing the head of Jones Gulch. The new terrain, dubbed Independence Bowl, is within Keystone’s special use permit area. The Forest Service issued a scoping notice asking for public comment on the proposal through Dec. 30. Other agencies, including the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are expected to offer comments. Dillon District Ranger Rick Newton said an internal review process and informal talks with other agencies thus far have shown the operation would likely have few impacts.But Colorado Wild is concerned that the approval could set a precedent. Bidwell said the streamlined review process is particularly questionable in the Jones Gulch area, identified as a potentially important forested movement corridor for threatened Canada lynx.”Our concern is that CEs are generally designed for smaller projects. If ski areas can use them to add terrain incrementally, we could end up with rather large expansions without a proper review and without public involvement,” Bidwell said. But local Forest Service officials said the cat skiing project boundary was drawn to avoid the movement corridor as designated under the forest plan. The new ski terrain would be mostly above tree line, where the rare cats are less likely to roam, said Joe Foreman, the Silverthorne-based Forest Service winter sports administrator.Foreman said the agency uses CEs for projects with “minor, fairly insignificant” impacts. A previous environmental analysis done for Keystone cat skiing in Bergman and Erickson bowls “lends a level of comfort” to doing a CE for the latest proposal, Foreman said.The EPA may also take close look at the proposal to determine whether it is an appropriate use of a CE.”We’ve commented in the past on inappropriate uses of CEs,” said the EPA’s Phil Strobel, who scrutinizes agency actions for compliance with federal environmental laws. “I’m a little surprised, given the previous controversy over Jones Gulch.” Strobel said he’s not aware of any previous cat skiing operation that has been approved under a CE. Projects authorized under CEs must fall into a category previously proven to have no significant impacts, Strobel explained. “Does this category apply? We’ve never seen it used this way before,” he said. Chuck Tolton, Keystone’s mountain operations director, said the popularity of existing cat skiing service shows public demand for the activity. Tolton said the hike-to component is also important, given the demand for what he characterizes as a “backcountry-light” experience, that is easily accessible ungroomed terrain in a relatively safe and controlled setting.Tolton said the resort took care to stay away from the forest wildlife area and that the decision-making process is tracking toward a no-effect call as a result.Bidwell said the Jones Gulch/Independence Bowl proposal could be an important precedent-setting test case for the agency and the ski industry, in terms of what types of activities can be quickly authorized by local Forest Service authorities without much opportunity for public review. Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.