SNOWMASS - Aspen Skiing Co.'s plan to expand skiing on Burnt Mountain cleared a big hurdle July 3 when the federal government approved the Colorado Roadless Rule, according to White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
The approved rule removes all inventoried roadless areas from within ski-area boundaries in the state, Fitzwilliams said. That removed a small sliver of the 1,710-acre Burnt Mountain Roadless Area from Snowmass Ski Area's boundary.
Roadless areas in the Forest Service inventory receive special protection and management. Colorado crafted its own rule rather than go with the federal government's direction, set in 2001. The Colorado Roadless Rule protects more than 4 million acres of public lands. It made exceptions for wildfire mitigation, insect mitigation near communities, expansion of coal mining and management of ski areas.
Skico benefited from the exception for ski areas. The company in the mid-2000s proposed widening what's known as the Gene Taylor Traverse so skiers and snowboarders can find their way off Burnt Mountain to the Two Creeks chairlift more easily. There are no chairlifts on Burnt Mountain. It provides a semi-backcountry or side-country skiing experience. Skico maintains that widening the narrow, existing traverse is critical to its customers' safety.
About 1,300 linear feet of the 2,700-foot-long catwalk crossed through the roadless area. A former supervisor of the White River National Forest approved the project in 2006 and claimed that the minimal tree removal wouldn't change the character of the roadless forest.
A coalition of conservationists and backcountry skiers filed an administrative appeal and won a partial victory in May 2006. The Forest Service's regional office in Lakewood said Skico couldn't move forward with the project without a more detailed study of the effects on the roadless area.
The project stalled until this year. Now the roadless issue is eliminated.
The Forest Service issued a permit for the tree-thinning work and is preparing a formal contract. A contract is required because Skico will remove trees.
"If someone is taking away trees, the federal government has to be reimbursed for that," Fitzwilliams said. "We cannot move the project forward" until that contract is completed.
Forest Service officials visited the field to mark the trees that will be removed and then measured them for an assessment of value. Fitzwilliams said "a few hundred trees" will be felled by Skico along with brush. Beetle-killed trees also will be removed.
It's uncertain when the contract will be completed. If it is soon, Skico wants to move ahead with clearing trees this year and complete it in time for the 2012-13 ski season, said Rich Burkley, Skico vice president of mountain operations. Like Fitzwilliams, he said the federal government's approval of the Colorado Roadless Rule on July 3 was the key to the project advancing.
"That's the final piece that fell into place from the Forest Service's perspective," Burkley said.
In addition to widening the traverse to about 30 feet, Skico wants to thin trees on Burnt Mountain east of the existing Long Shot trail to link existing open meadows, Burkley said. He said skiing on Burnt Mountain is "hugely popular" with Snowmass customers.
"This will dramatically improve the experience," he said.
For some backcountry skiers and riders, the work will diminish their experience.
"I understand the argument and concerns," Fitzwilliams said. "People's personal powder stashes are going to get used by other people."
That cannot enter into the Forest Service's assessment of the project, he said, because that area of the forest is designated for alpine skiing and managed accordingly.