The White River National Forest supervisor has decided to allow Aspen Skiing Co. to undertake a modest amount of glading to create a better exit route off Burnt Mountain into Snowmass Ski Area.
Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams approved an alternative Friday that the agency considered to be a compromise. The approved action doesn’t allow Skico to remove as many trees as it proposed, but it allows more work than an environmental organization and some backcountry ski enthusiasts wanted.
“In summary, I am approving the construction of an egress trail design that employs a combination of a narrower trail and gladed terrain to facilitate public and emergency egress,” Fitzwilliams wrote in a cover letter accompanying his decision. He also issued a finding that the project would have no significant impacts on the quality of the environment.
However, the length of review needed on the controversial issue means Skico won’t be able to undertake the work this fall.
“Practically, no, because we expect appeals and expect litigation,” Fitzwilliams said.
There is a 45-day appeal period built into the Forest Service process to give opponents time to digest and react to the proposal. If no appeals are filed, Skico will be required to wait another five days before taking any action under Forest Service rules. That means Skico wouldn’t be able to cut down any trees before mid-November in the best-case scenario. Even if weather conditions weren’t a hurdle, legal issues likely would be. The Ark Initiative environmental group has already mounted three challenges to the Forest Service’s approvals for work on Burnt Mountain. Fitzwilliams said he expects another but also feels the agency will prevail again.
Skiers and snowboarders will face the same conditions this winter that they faced exiting Burnt Mountain last winter, Fitzwilliams acknowledged.
“Yeah, without a question,” he said.
Skico was allowed to open 250 acres of terrain on Burnt Mountain last season even though the Forest Service determined the egress issue needed further review because of legal challenges. Skiers and snowboarders hike a small hill outside of the Elk Camp portion of Snowmass to access Burnt Mountain. They bypass the Longshot trail, which was developed several years ago, and pass through a gate that warns of backcountry conditions. The terrain Skico opened is more “sidecountry” because the ski patrol sweeps it and it’s close to the developed ski area. Backcountry advocates protested the opening of the terrain because it attracted more people and intruded on the solitude.
While the additional terrain was a hit with customers, exiting off Burnt Mountain was often a challenge. Skiers and snowboarders had to pick their way through tight trees and sparse snow cover.
Skico proposed widening the egress to an average of 35 feet for about 3,200 linear feet. After the Forest Service examined various options in an environmental assessment of the project, which was completed in August, Skico Vice President David Corbin submitted official comments saying the company would be willing to compromise on a solution with a narrower egress route.
The alternative approved by Fitzwilliams will allow Skico to widen the egress route to 10 feet for the upper 500 linear feet. There is only a 6 percent grade, so skiers and snowboarders would not need to make turns, the decision said.
Below the 10-foot-wide segment, the grade increases to a 30 percent slope. Skico will be allowed to widen the egress route to 250 feet for about 700 linear feet. That would allow full clearing of trees on about 0.8 acre plus glading trees on 4 acres.
“This width and percent of tree removal would allow skiers to make turns on this steeper portion of trail, spreading people across the terrain to provide a more sustainable egress route that would maintain more viable snow conditions than the existing egress route,” the decision said. “It would also allow ski patrollers to negotiate the area for emergency purposes with a toboggan or snowmobile.”
Skico also received conditional approval for grading a 500-linear-foot section of the lower traverse so that it can be groomed by a snowcat. However, Fitzwilliams wrote in his decision that Skico and the Forest Service should monitor the widened egress for at least one season to see if the grading is necessary.
The decision also allows Skico to use an existing egress off Burnt Mountain — a trail downhill from the proposed route. Using both routes would allow skiers and snowboarders to spread out more, the decision said.