The U.S. Forest Service has upheld a decision to let Aspen Skiing Co. cut a better trail to get skiers off Burnt Mountain.
However, the broader question of what Skico should be allowed to do on about 230 acres of terrain on Burnt Mountain will be argued before a federal court of appeals Friday in a separate but related case.
An environmental organization and a homeowner at the base of the Snowmass Ski Area are trying to prevent the spread of skiing on Burnt Mountain on the east edge of the Snowmass Ski Area.
Burnt Mountain used to be a backcountry area where skiers and snowboarders could find mostly mellow slopes, great shots through the trees and solitude.
Skico wanted to add the Burnt Mountain Glades to capitalize on the growing demand among skiers for a backcountry experience in a safe environment.
The White River National Forest approved the expansion of skiing on Burnt Mountain beyond the Long Shot trail in 2006. Legal wrangling prevented Skico from adding terrain until the 2012-13 season. Skico started patrolling Burnt Mountain last year, but marketed it more prominently this season. Skiers and snowboarders must make a short hike from the Elk Camp section of Snowmass and go through a backcountry gate to access the terrain.
Additional legal challenges prevented Skico from removing trees for the Burnt Mountain egress route, which would funnel skiers and snowboarders back to Long Shot. As it stands from a legal perspective, Skico was allowed to open 230 acres to skiers and snowboarders, but it couldn’t touch the narrow, tree-lined and poorly defined route out of Burnt Mountain.
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams approved what he considered a compromise idea in September that limits the width of the egress trail, thus reducing the number of trees that have to be removed.
The Ark Initiative, an environmental group based in Pinedale, Wyo.; its director, Donald Duerr; and Two Creeks homeowner Scott Schlesinger appealed the decision. They contended that 80 acres of land should be added to the existing 8,180 acres of Inventoried Roadless Area lands on Burnt Mountain. The egress trail crosses a portion of those 80 acres. Therefore, they claimed, Skico shouldn’t be allowed to work on the trail.
The Forest Service contends that the Colorado Roadless Rule, approved in July 2012, intentionally prevents roadless areas from overlapping with ski area boundaries, so the Burnt Mountain egress doesn’t interfere with roadless lands.
The Ark Initiative would have needed to fight the battle over the Burnt Mountain egress during creation of the Colorado Roadless Rule, the federal agency said.
In addition, the Forest Service said the argument is a moot point since the roadless rule doesn’t prohibit the construction of trails.
An appeal reviewing officer for the Forest Service found Fitzwilliam’s decision complied with the appropriate laws, regulations and polices. Deputy Regional Forester Maribeth Gustafson concurred in late December in her role as appeal deciding officer. “This project will improve egress from the Burnt Mountain Glades for skiers and ski patrol on the Long Shot trail,” she wrote.
William Eubanks, an attorney representing the appellants, said no decision has been made on taking the battle to the court system. He said his clients have asked the Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell to review the case on the grounds that Gustafson was a former White River National Forest Supervisor that acted on Burnt Mountain issues prior to Fitzwilliams.
“We haven’t made a big deal of it,” Eubanks said, and his clients aren’t trying to embarrass the Forest Service. Removing Gustafson may not have any bearing on the outcome, but they felt they deserved a fair hearing, Eubanks said.
Tidwell hasn’t decided yet if the Forest Service will take up the issue further.
Meanwhile, the agency and Eubanks are preparing to argue broader Burnt Mountain issues Friday before a federal appeals court. Ark Initiative and its director argued in that case that the Forest Service should undertake a greater study to determine if between 600 and 1,000 acres should be deemed roadless. If the land becomes designated roadless, it would limit Skico’s ability to install chairlifts and make other infrastructure improvements.