Breckenridge: Don’t ski these trees
December 28, 2008
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. ” The prospect of clear-cutting big swaths of dead lodgepole pines at Breckenridge Ski Area may stir visions of new powder playgrounds for some.
But the resort and U.S. Forest Service are already thinking about forest restoration, and a key part of that will be protecting saplings.
To that end, the ski area will test different types of fences aimed at preventing skiers and snowboarders from entering closed areas.
One of the new fences is going in near the T-bar, and Forest Service snow rangers hope they can explain to skiers and boarders why it will be important to stay out of some areas as new trees grow.
“To what degree can we keep people out of a certain area? The idea is to see what works,” said Breckenridge chief operating officer Lucy Kay, explaining that resort officials are thinking about how to encourage re-growth after the pine-beetle epidemic has run its course.
The tiny bugs are expected to kill up to 90 percent of the mature lodgepoles in Summit County. For the ski areas, the trees are important because they block the wind and shade the snow.
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Rick Thompson, a biologist who has studied the ski area for more than 10 years, is helping the resort plan for the future, Kay said.
The barriers being tested also could be used to protect important habitat for elk, lynx and other wildlife, she added.
Kay said the tests at Breckenridge would involve control areas for comparison. Ski patrollers and Forest Service rangers will monitor the sites regularly, counting ski tracks, to see just how effective the barriers are, she said.
Sharp metal edges can cut the tops off the young trees, slowing regeneration, said Forest Service ranger Joe Foreman. At other areas, rope closures and other temporary structures have not been all that effective at diverting traffic, he said.
Some years ago, Arapahoe Basin experimented some hard physical barriers to protect re-vegetation areas with some success, albeit on a much smaller scale, Foreman said.
The areas at Breckenridge were chosen as test spots that are easy to monitor, not because they are valuable wildlife habitat.
“We’ll try it for a season and take them down. We said let’s try a physical barrier to see if it will route people around the area,” Foreman said. “Is there any kind of barrier that will work?”
Snow ranger Shelly Grail said educating skiers and snowboarders to gain some degree of voluntary compliance is crucial. To that end, the test will include some interpretive signage to let people know why the fences are there.
Along with protecting revegetation areas, the fences could also be useful for protecting important wildlife habitat.
The fences being tested at the ski area could eventually be used to do just that on Peak 6, where the resort is proposing to add a new lift and several hundred acres of terrain.
“It’s pretty good habitat,” Thompson said of the Peak 6 area. Protecting forest areas at the outer edges of the ski area could help maintain biodiversity across the wider extent of the Tenmile Range, he said.
Thompson said the resort also considered a “jackstraw” fence, with downed lodgepoles set up in rows along the trail edges. Another idea was to cut small-diameter “doghair” lodgepole from private land near the base and to nail it directly to the trees on edge of the trails.
But for now, the plan is to try out the double-height snowfences commonly seen in other parts of the ski area, he said.
To allow for wildlife movement while at the same time blocking humans, the bottoms of the fences will be five feet off the ground. That would allow deer and elk to pass under the fences in the summer.
Part of the test at Breckenridge is to determine how wild animals will respond to the fences, Thompson said.
Federal biologists responsible for ensuring recovery of lynx say they want to make sure that ski areas remain “permeable” for the snow-loving cats. Part of that strategy is to make sure there are at least a few areas within ski area boundaries where lynx can hide and rest during the day.
The Forest Service tried to set aside a few areas in Vail’s Blue Sky Basin for the same reason.
“Several methodologies have been attempted at Vail and they’ve all failed,” said Kurt Broderdorp, a Grand Junction-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who monitors activities on federal lands as they relate to endangered species.
The experiment at Breckenridge may help determine whether such a policy is feasible, he said.
But like Foreman and Grail, Broderdorp said that education and voluntary compliance are even more important than mandatory closures.