Forest plan allows for more skiing on Burnt Mtn. | AspenTimes.com

Forest plan allows for more skiing on Burnt Mtn.

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The recently approved management plan for the White River National Forest sets the stage for more gladed ski terrain to open on the eastern Burnt Mountain section of the Snowmass Ski Area.

In the plan, the Forest Service redefined the ski area’s permit boundary to allow for 80 acres to be taken out of the ski area and another adjoining 80 acres to be added.

The relatively minor boundary adjustment allows the Aspen Skiing Co. to pursue creating a formal ski trail connecting the lower slopes of Burnt Mountain East with Burnt Mountain West and the Two Creeks lift.

If the Skico’s proposal is accepted, about 300 acres of naturally gladed, advanced-level ski terrain on Burnt Mountain East could be added to the ski area’s operations in the next two to three years.

Today, that terrain is accessible through a backcountry gate from near the top of Burnt Mountain West, which is already a formal part of the ski area.

Many backcountry skiers and snowboarders are already familiar with the “bandit” trail that connects East with West. The trail starts just below a flat wetlands area that is reachable after skiing most of the terrain on Burnt Mountain East. Then the narrow little trail winds steeply through the woods and finally works its way through a stand of aspen trees not far above the Two Creeks base area.

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The steep trail is relatively easy for expert skiers to handle but is tough for most intermediate snowboarders to ride gracefully. It’s also not wide enough for ski patrol snowmobiles to access.

In the past, Skico executives have referred to the trail as the “Gene Taylor Traverse” because employees of a ski shop in Snowmass were said to have first forged the route.

The U.S. Forest Service’s decision will allow the Skico to propose formalizing the existing trail, thinning some trees on the upper slopes of Burnt Mountain East and possibly adding a short surface lift to eliminate the hike from Elk Camp up to Burnt Mountain.

The decision also could mean that a once-proposed Burnt Mountain East lift will never be built.

“This trail would eliminate the need for the east Burnt Mountain lift,” said Victor Gerdin, a mountain planner with the Skico.

The trail, as well as a plan to cut trees between the naturally gladed areas on Burnt Mountain East, will require additional environmental review, according to officials with the Forest Service.

“Any ground-disturbing activities are still subject to the NEPA process,” said Erik Martin, the Winter Sports Resorts Program manager on the White River forest. “It is a permitted boundary change, but it doesn’t mean much until they do a real NEPA-level review. That will determine if they can move forward with any kind of vegetation clearing.”

NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, sets up a review process for actions taken on forest land. A NEPA review can be relatively simple at the EA, or environmental assessment, level, or horrificly complex and expensive at the EIS, or environmental impact statement, level.

And while the forest plan EIS did approve the change to the Snowmass Ski Area’s permit boundary, it didn’t approve any site-specific development.

The naturally gladed, rolling terrain on Burnt Mountain East has been in regulatory limbo, and outside of the ski area’s operational boundary, since an environmental impact statement was completed in 1994.

The Snowmass Ski Area EIS looked at a range of options for adding lifts and trails to Burnt Mountain, which is next to the Elk Camp section of the expansive ski area.

In the end, the Forest Service ruled that a lift and three formal trails could be built on Burnt Mountain West, but that before a lift and trails could be built on Burnt Mountain East, additional geotechnical studies were necessary to determine how stable the slopes in the area are.

The decision, by Sonny LaSalle, then the White River’s forest supervisor, also defused a host of environmental concerns over the development of Burnt Mountain East, portions of which are often used by the local elk herd that migrates through the area in the spring and fall.

LaSalle’s decision, saying more study was necessary, threw cold water on the Skico’s idea of building a series of formal ski trails on Burnt Mountain East that would be served by a long dead-end lift. It also helps chill the company’s enthusiasm for pursuing approvals to build a gondola connecting Snowmass with the Buttermilk Mountain ski area.

But now, with the decision in the forest plan, the stage is set for the Skico to pursue a new approach to Burnt Mountain East.

Now that the “Gene Taylor Traverse” area is approved to be included in the ski area’s permit boundary, the Skico hopes be able to open up the terrain on Burnt Mountain East with a minimal amount of tree-cutting and the formalizing of the traverse.

“On the east side there will likely be no formal trail, but we would glade between the little parks,” said Gerdin. “And the glading we would do would only be to connect the natural openings.”

For skiers, it means that the advanced terrain on Burnt Mountain East would be opened more or less in its natural state, that it would be inbounds, and that it would be much easier to return to the base of Two Creeks.

It’s also possible, as part of the development of Burnt Mountain East, that the Skico would also pursue installing a short lift to eliminate the hike from the top of Elk Camp to the top of Burnt Mountain.

The proposed lift, which would be about 300 to 400 feet long, was approved in the 1994 EIS and is referred to as the “Naked Man” lift, in contrast to the Naked Lady lift in the Alpine Springs section of the ski area.

“If we did that, it would certainly get more people in there,” said Gerdin. “As soon as you eliminate that five-minute walk, you’re gonna have 10 times the people in there. And so we would not put that lift in there until there was more terrain.”

Today on Burnt Mountain West, the Skico has cut only one of three potential trails. And Gerdin said at least one more formal ski trail in the area is on the Skico’s drawing board.

The planning for Burnt Mountain has taken on a new sense of priority with the Skico’s proposal to build a gondola from a new Base Village project to the bottom of Elk Camp.

“What is really going to trigger this thing is the installation of the gondola to Elk Camp,” said Gerdin. “A lot of people are going to be unloaded at that area, and people will take off from there and go to Burnt Mountain.”

Gerdin thinks it may not be too long before the Skico seeks to make the concept a reality.

“It will be in the near future, for sure,” he said.

The possibility of Burnt Mountain East being opened for skiing seems to be OK in concept with the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, which lobbied hard in the past against its development.

But the organization said it fully expects the Skico to have to go through another round of environmental reviews after it submits a site-specific proposal for glading and the construction of a formal traverse trail out of the area.

“I think the devil will be in the details to see if it is an appropriate action on forest lands,” said Jamie Fidel, the AWW’s conservation director. “But it doesn’t seem like there are any blatant red flags.”

One reason the AWW and other environmental groups may be amenable to opening Burnt Mountain East is that the forest plan also designated the entire area, about 1,600 acres, between Burnt Mountain and Buttermilk as appropriate for wildlife use. Up until the recent forest plan was released, the Forest Service had zoned the area as appropriate for ski area development.

The new designation makes it harder for a potential gondola between Buttermilk and Snowmass to be approved by the Forest Service, as it would require amending the recently completed forest plan. It also makes it much less likely that limited development on Burnt Mountain East will lead to a proposal to connect the area with Buttermilk.

Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com

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