Foes of Aspen Skiing Co.’s plan to complete an egress route off Burnt Mountain to Snowmass ski area have influenced the U.S. Forest to consider an alternative that would do more to preserve the area’s backcountry feel.
The Burnt Mountain Environmental Assessment was unveiled Tuesday after months of work by a contractor for the White River National Forest. The assessment looked at Skico’s plan to complete an egress route from Burnt Mountain to the Long Shot trail within Snowmass.
The study assessed three options — including doing nothing and leaving the existing conditions alone.
Alternative 2, which is the proposed action, would allow Skico to create an egress that would average 35 feet wide for about 3,200 linear feet.
Alternative 3, which was created after reviewing public comments on Skico’s proposal, would scale down sections of the egress.
The Forest Service will take comments on the study until Sept. 6 and then issue a decision.
The eastern and western sections of that egress trail were completed prior to the 2012-13 ski season. The middle section — about 1,300 linear feet — had to be studied more thoroughly, the Forest Service determined, because it was once part of an inventoried roadless area.
Skico was allowed to open about 250 acres of gladed skiing on Burnt Mountain last season even though the egress issue wasn’t resolved. Skiers and snowboarders had to pick their way through tight trees in sparse snow conditions through the middle section. The Forest Service said improvements are necessary to make the route safe and enjoyable by Skico customers and to accommodate ski patrol operations.
Skico’s plan to add the gladed terrain was opposed by backcountry advocates who treasured the wild feel of the land and the solitude they could find there. About 40 people wrote letters of opposition in February and March to the Forest Service over Skico’s plan to complete the egress route.
The environmental assessment acknowledges that “guests value the Burnt Mountain area for the remote character of the backcountry feel” even though the terrain is within Skico’s special-use permit for Snowmass. The study discounted the loss of Burnt Mountain as backcountry terrain and noted that many other backcountry skiing opportunities exist elsewhere on the White River National Forest close to Aspen and Snowmass.
The assessment claimed that completing the egress trail as proposed won’t erode the backcountry feel on Burnt Mountain because the opening of terrain last season already altered the character.
“Again, in the summer of 2012, the Burnt Mountain Glades were incorporated into the operational boundary and the backcountry skiing experience was displaced due to that project — approved through the 2006 Environmental Assessment,” the latest study said. “Because there is no longer a true backcountry experience, with implementation of the Proposed Action there would be no change to the backcountry character, operational boundary or Special Use Permit boundary.”
Completion of the egress trail “is not anticipated to measurably increase visitation” to Snowmass, the study said. Snowmass can accommodate 13,500 skiers at one time, according to a Forest Service formula. Usage peaks around 9,000 on busy days, the study said.
However, the egress trail could draw more people to the Burnt Mountain Glades.
“Providing improved egress is likely to increase the number of people skiing the Burnt Mountain Glades and the number of trips skiers make within the glades, which may indirectly impact the recreation experience on the Burnt Mountain portion of the Special Use permit area mainly due to a slight increase in compacted snow condition,” the assessment said.
Even with increased use, the Burnt Mountain Glades won’t be “crowded” by ski area design criteria, the study contended. Expert, gladed terrain is typically designed for 0.5 skiers or riders per acre. The Burnt Mountain Glades aren’t expected to exceed that density “for the foreseeable future,” the study said.
The proposed action would allow Skico to grade the dirt on about 500 feet of the egress route to make a level platform that could be groomed by a snowcat. In addition, trees could be cleared off some portions of the egress and thinned in others.
“Total disturbance would be approximately 2.5 acres of full clearing, including the 0.4 acre of grading,” the assessment said. “Tree removal for the egress trail would range from 25 to 45 feet in width and would be completed by hand crews using chainsaws.”
Increased numbers of skiers in the glades is exactly what opponents of the Skico plan hoped to avoid. Foes also wanted to minimize the disturbance of Burnt Mountain for the egress trail.
An alternative was prepared to address their concerns. Alternative 3 was prepared from concepts proposed in public comments, the study said. The alternative tries to minimize physical impacts of the egress trail, minimize impacts to the character of the eastern side of Burnt Mountain and minimize the use of snowcats.
Under that alternative, the egress trail would be only 10 feet wide for the first 500 linear feet, where the trail is gentle and skiers and riders don’t have to make turns. The steeper, middle section of the terrain would be widened to 250 feet along 700 linear feet to create more of a skiing feel. A 20-foot egress trail would be created along the final 500 linear feet.
“Alternative 3 would minimize the potential physical impacts to Burnt Mountain while also maintaining the undeveloped natural skiing experiences that defines the character of Burnt Mountain,” the study said.
Letters were sent Monday to parties interested in the Burnt Mountain egress trail debate. They have until Sept. 6 to submit comments on the EA. Written comments must be sent to Matt Ehrman, acting forest winter sports program manager, Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, 806 W. Hallam, Aspen, CO 81611, or by fax to 970-925-5277.
Comments can be sent by email to https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/CommentInput?Project=41373 and must include the name and mailing address of the person commenting.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams will make a decision on the project after reviewing the study, staff recommendations and public comments. The study noted that he could approve an alternative as proposed, blend ideas from different options or come up with something new.