SNOWMASS - The latest skirmish over skiing on Burnt Mountain spurred about 60 written comments from skiers and environmentalists - some opposed and some supportive of a proposed egress trail connecting "sidecountry" terrain to the ski area.
"They're pretty 50-50, really," said Jim Stark, winter-sports coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service. However, comments were submitted by an environmental organization that said it represented 40 residents of the Roaring Fork Valley. Considered in that light, more concerns were lodged about the project.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District invited public comment on Aspen Skiing Co.'s plan to add a 3,100-foot-long egress trail that would lead skiers and snowboarders from 230 acres of gladed terrain added on Burnt Mountain this winter to the Long Shot trail on the western side of Burnt Mountain.
The Forest Service notice of the project said trees will need to be cleared to create a path as wide as 35 feet. Stark said Snowmass Mountain Manager Steve Sewell told him the company won't make the route that wide. Skico will use a special, narrower grooming machine to maintain that egress, so the width will need to be only as much as 22 feet wide, according to Stark. (The Burnt Mountain Glades won't be groomed.) Skico also plans to "spot" glade some trees along that egress so skiers and riders can avoid the groomed route for adjacent tree skiing, Stark said in an earlier interview.
Nevertheless, the prospects of a 35-foot-wide route have seared an image in the minds of some Burnt Mountain fans. Several letter-writers claimed that the expansion onto Burnt Mountain - accompanied by marking boundaries and designating the egress through tight trees - already has changed the wild feel of the mountain.
"While I appreciate that Skico didn't clear as many trees as they were 'allowed' to in the Burnt Mountain expansion plan, I believe they have gone far enough. Creating a 35-foot-wide corridor is unnecessary and unwarranted," wrote Aspen resident Amy Mountjoy.
She contended that out-of-bounds terrain should be accessed only by skiers and snowboarders capable of navigating it - with wide egress routes.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Chad Driggers, of Glenwood Springs. He said having Burnt Mountain "taken over" by Skico was a "huge disappointment" to many valley residents. True "sidecountry" terrain is rare around Colorado's ski areas, he noted.
James Stone, of Aspen, wrote that Skico customers gained sidecountry skiing, but "some of us locals lost a treasure."
"I understand how people can claim that many people benefit from a sidecountry experience, a suggestion of a wilderness experience," Stone wrote. "But before the skiing company disturbed it Burnt Mountain was more a real wilderness experience - and yet close to civilization - an accessible 'pocket wilderness' as one commenter called it."
He urged the Forest Service to do everything it can to "keep Burnt Mountain roadless."
Skico received Forest Service permission last summer to add the gladed, sidecountry terrain, but the agency determined that more study was required on the potential impacts of the egress. Skico went ahead with the selective spot glading of the terrain last summer and fall and opened it this winter even though the egress couldn't be improved.
The Burnt Mountain Glades are accessed by a short hike from the Elk Camp section of Snowmass. Skiers and snowboarders must pass through a gate with signs that warn that they will have to navigate through tight trees to return to the ski area.
Some people who submitted written comments to the Forest Service supported the addition of the glades and urged approval of an improved egress.
Dave Spence, a longtime condominium manager in Snowmass Village, wrote that the improved egress would make the Burnt Mountain experience "nicer" for those who like it and add a dimension that would make Snowmass a better ski resort.
Katie McLellan, of Aspen, wrote that the egress needs to be improved for skier safety.
"Yes, some trees will be cut, but I do not feel that the area will be harmed," she wrote.
Pitkin County Commissioner Steve Child wrote a letter expressing his personal opinion. He said Skico should be allowed to build the egress trail "in exchange for permanently forfeiting any plans to build new lifts on the north face of Burnt Mountain."
The Two Creeks Homeowners Association, which represents residents adjacent to lower Burnt Mountain, took a middle-of-the-road position, noting that the current egress trail is "very hazardous."
"Since the additional acreage has been added for glade skiing, we believe the proper course is to now allow the Aspen Ski Corp. (sic) to make the egress safe," wrote Two Creeks Homeowners Association President Larry Singer. "The analogy that comes to mind is, "'Now that the horse has been let out of the barn, we need to put a bridle on so it's safe to ride.'"
Two environmental organizations also weighed in. The Ski Area Citizens' Coalition asked the Forest Service to conduct an environmental impact statement, which is more thorough than the planned environmental assessment. The statement is warranted because the alleged impacts will be "significant," wrote Anna Olsen, a coalition member from South Lake Tahoe, Calif. She said the area is still roadless, so the egress route will change that characteristic. It also could impact lynx and other sensitive species, she claimed.
The Ark Initiative also filed a 14-page letter prepared by its attorneys. One of the points made by the organization is that 80 acres of terrain on Burnt Mountain within the Snowmass permit area were removed from the roadless designation when the Colorado Roadless Rule was adopted. The Forest Service says the egress trail can be cleared because the terrain was removed from roadless designation. But the Ark Initiative says the agency never thoroughly studied whether the 80 acres should actually be removed from roadless inventory.
The Ark Initiative is a Wyoming-based non-profit conservation organization that has challenged the Forest Service in court over approval of the Burnt Mountain expansion plan. Its litigation has failed. It failed in an attempt last fall to get an injunction to prevent Skico from spot glading on Burnt Mountain.
While the conservation group is based in Wyoming, it said it made comments on behalf of 40 residents of the Roaring Fork Valley and three from outside the valley. At least five of the people Ark represented also submitted individual comments.
The Wilderness Workshop, the Roaring Fork Valley's oldest locally based environmental organization, stayed out of the fray.
The comment period on the Burnt Mountain egress trail closed Monday. Stark said a consultant will sort through the comments, categorize the issues and determine which warrant consideration. In that process, which is called content analysis, the agency is looking for technical issues it can respond to - such as the allegation that the egress trail will impact lynx habitat.
Right or wrong, the process doesn't weigh opinions alleging that Burnt Mountain's wilderness experience is diminished when Skico touts the terrain to its customers. The process isn't a popularity contest, Stark said.
A draft environmental analysis likely will be released in early May, according to Stark. The public will get an opportunity to comment on the draft, and then a final environmental assessment will be issued with a decision.