Burnt Mtn. plan catches heat
November 17, 2006
Not everyone is buying into the Aspen Skiing Co.’s much-ballyhooed “renaissance” of Snowmass Ski Area.The Skico is pumping about $50 million in on-mountain improvements into Snowmass to help the 40-year-old resort finally reach its potential.The new $13 million Elk Camp Gondola is the flashy, eye-catching move in the multi-year plan. The expansion of the “semi-backcountry skiing experience” on Burnt Mountain is a more subtle piece of the puzzle.The Skico wants to selectively thin some trees on the mountain – located between Snowmass Ski Area and Buttermilk – and add terrain similar to what’s offered by the existing Long Shot trail. It adds terrain that rounds out the experience for customers, according to Skico officials.The proposal would affect about 500 acres of public lands.A feud simmers behind the scenes over that plan. A coalition of environmentalists and backcountry skiing enthusiasts filed a lawsuit this fall trying to prevent the U.S. Forest Service from letting the Skico implement the plan.The Ark Initiative and its director, Donald Duerr, teamed with backcountry skiers Alex Forsythe of Florida and Paul Smith of Aspen Village in the lawsuit. The Ark Initiative is a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to preserving “natural arks” where wildlife can withstand the “flood” of human development, according to the lawsuit.A 27-page lawsuit dives into the nitty-gritty of the Forest Service’s approval of the Skico proposal and alleges flaws in the process. In a nutshell, the plaintiffs don’t believe Burnt Mountain’s lynx habitat, roadless character and superb backcountry skiing opportunities will survive if the Skico proceeds.They want a judge in the U.S. District Court of District Columbia to overturn a February 2006 approval by the Forest Service and make the agency undertake a more detailed study of the potential impacts.The Forest Service hasn’t filed a response yet, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department, which is representing the agency. The feds have filed a motion to move the case to Colorado.The Skico isn’t named as a party in the litigation. Skico attorney Dave Bellack said an attorney for the Forest Service mentioned the agency would like the company to join the case. He said he would consider it if the request is formalized.The litigation sanitizes an interesting debate. Places like Burnt Mountain are called “shoulder areas” because they provide a backcountry feel yet are close enough to a ski area for easy access. They are under increasing pressure for development by the booming Colorado ski industry, hungry to make changes that will give them an edge with customers.Pat O’Donnell, who retired last week as Skico’s president and CEO, defended the company’s plans for Burnt Mountain as environmentally friendly. He said last summer the Skico has no plans to add a chairlift in the terrain unless the number of customers increases significantly – something that won’t happen for years.Meanwhile, skiers and riders would enjoy the low-key experience that Long Shot provides, he said. Customers have to undertake a short hike from the Elk Camp part of Snowmass to get to the Burnt Mountain terrain.Burnt Mountain has been a popular backcountry powder stash for decades. Its loyalists don’t want the Skico bringing in greater numbers of skiers and riders. They say that would ruin the quiet, secluded feel and bump out the terrain.Duerr and the Ark Initiative also contend that bringing more activity to Burnt Mountain could have a detrimental effect on adjacent roadless lands that provide prime wildlife habitat.The feud scuttled the Skico’s intent to undertake additional trail work for this season. Company officials acknowledge it might take years before the issue is resolved.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.