Enviros ask Skico to look closer to home | AspenTimes.com

Enviros ask Skico to look closer to home

Some local environmentalists want the Aspen Skiing Co. to “save” Burnt Mountain before it tries to save the world.The Skico is regarded as a ski industry leader in environmental causes and recently made headlines for educating customers about global warming and lobbying for legislation to reduce greenhouse gases.But a handful of local residents suggest the company needs to examine its own actions closer to home. They objected to the Skico’s proposed expansion of ski terrain on Burnt Mountain, which is on the east side of Snowmass Ski Area.The Skico wants to thin trees and expand a catwalk so more of Burnt Mountain can be used to give its customers a feel for the backcountry. Up to 500 acres of terrain would be added to the ski area on the east side of Long Shot, the only trail currently developed on Burnt Mountain. A traverse or catwalk would guide skiers and riders from the heavily wooded part of the mountain back to Long Shot and down to the Two Creeks chairlift.The U.S. Forest Service is reviewing the environmental impacts of the proposal. As part of that review, it accepted written comments from the public until Jan. 28.Out of about 20 comments, including a petition signed by 16 people, all but two opposed the expansion onto Burnt Mountain, according to a review of the comments by The Aspen Times. One person wrote in favor of the expansion while one urged more study.Expansion foe Rian Taylor of Aspen warned that the proposal would turn the backcountry tranquility of Burnt Mountain into “Busy Mountain.” He also suggested the Skico would tarnish its reputation by proceeding. “Why turn a green-friendly company into a target for anti-environmental criticism, especially when true backcountry lovers are opposed?” Taylor wrote.Jim Stone of Aspen wrote that a truly environmentally friendly company would avoid the expansion onto Burnt Mountain.”The Aspen Skiing Company desires to be a good steward of the environment and educate the public about our mountain ecology,” Stone wrote. “To this end I hope the company will respect the natural values of the public land it leases under its permit and decide not to use this part of the permit …”Skico Director of Environmental Affairs Auden Schendler was unavailable for comment yesterday. Skico President and Chief Executive Officer Pat O’Donnell turned down a request for an interview through a Skico spokesman.The Skico earned conceptual approval from the Forest Service in 1994 to expand onto Burnt Mountain and build a chairlift after a bitter fight with environmentalists.The Skico’s current plan doesn’t include a chairlift. A Skico executive previously indicated that the chairlift will be dropped permanently from its plans. However, the Forest Service hasn’t received any official notice about the chairlift being eliminated from future plans.Some of the objections made to the Forest Service about the expansion onto Burnt Mountain clearly came from people who don’t want anything to interfere with their favorite backcountry stash.Other comments were made over concerns about the effects on elk and other wildlife, and their habitat. The Colorado Division of Wildlife filed concerns that increased use of Burnt Mountain could decrease its use by elk. Studies show that elk avoid the “main core” of the ski area, including the portion named Elk Camp, wrote Pat Tucker, wildlife manager for the area that includes the Roaring Fork Valley. That avoidance is at least partially due to recreation uses on the mountain, Tucker said.”The Division is concerned that, if the proposed actions are implemented, the White River National Forest will be unable to meet the objective of improving conditions for elk within the foreseeable future, as is stated in the draft Environmental Assessment [by the Forest Service],” Tucker wrote.Wilderness Workshop, one of Aspen’s oldest and most highly respected environmental groups, raised concerns about the effects of the expansion on wildlife species other than elk. However, Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker wrote that the project “may represent a better way of doing business that will improve the Aspen Skiing Company’s bottom line while likewise reducing the ecological impact of its operations.”Shoemaker wrote that building the traverse to collect skiers may eliminate the need to build a chairlift. He asked the Skico to “surrender” its right to build that lift.Delia Malone, a former staff member at Wilderness Workshop, wasn’t as accommodating of the Skico’s plan as her former employer. Increased skiing will degrade the habitat on lower Burnt Mountain, she wrote to the Forest Service. That will affect pine marten, long- and short-tailed weasels, coyotes, red foxes and bobcats as well as small mammals like shrews, voles, bushy-tailed woodrats and western jumping mice, Malone said.”I feel that increases in the use of the area by skiers/boarders will irreparably erode wildlife potential and result in the loss of natural species in this landscape,” Malone wrote.Jim Stark, winter sports administrator for the Aspen Ranger District, said he and a Forest Service team will analyze the public comments and respond to them in a final environmental assessment. That document, which will rule on the Skico’s proposal, will likely be finished by the end of February, he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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