Forest plan sparks gondola debate |

Forest plan sparks gondola debate

Jeremy Heiman

The city of Aspen and Pitkin County are nearly prepared to submit their combined comments on the draft management plan for the White River National Forest.

That input includes support for maintaining the area between the Snowmass and Buttermilk as elk habitat, which could preclude a gondola link between the two ski areas.

City Council members and county commissioners met jointly Tuesday to discuss their input on the forest plan. County and city staffers will make final changes to the draft comments and present the document for signatures from all elected members in upcoming meetings.

One of the points which generated discussion is a possible gondola linking the Buttermilk and Snowmass. Alternative D, the Forest Service’s preferred plan, designates the Owl Creek Valley between the two ski areas as elk habitat, and does not address the possibility of a gondola. But the idea has surfaced repeatedly in discussions of the Aspen Skiing Co.’s future plans.

The city-county comments support the “elk habitat” designation. City Councilman Tom McCabe noted that he doesn’t believe an aerial tramway could be built which would not require clear-cutting of timber underneath to allow rescues from the gondola.

Commissioner Leslie Lamont asked those present to look at the comments drafted by the Colorado Division of Wildlife on the subject. The DOW document says in order for the Forest Service to justify construction of an aerial tramway, the project “must be proven to be an overwhelming benefit to the public, not just an amenity for a neighborhood, hotel or a recreational resort.”

“That’s been the historical debate,” Lamont said. “Is it really public transportation, or is it just an amenity for the Skico?”

Skico planner Victor Gerdin said the Skico has no intention of pressing for a gondola on that route if the community doesn’t support it. But he said the Skico would prefer that the option to pursue such a project be left open, because it could prove to be beneficial environmentally.

“If, down the road, it’s determined that a gondola would take 15 percent of the traffic off Brush Creek Road, what kind of act of Congress would it take to change the prescription in the Forest Plan?” Gerdin asked.

Another issue elected officials discussed is the concept of active management of forest lands. Alternative D is weighted toward “active management” for the purpose of enhancing wildlife habitat.

“If they’re going to use this, why don’t they put their money where their mouth is and provide more enforcement?” asked McCabe.

“Read `active management’ as `logging,’ said Jonathan Lowsky, Pitkin County’s wildlife biologist. The draft plan contains prescriptions for clear-cutting areas to produce what is thought to be better habitat for forest carnivores such as lynx and wolverine.

Additional comments by commissioners and council address such issues as: the socioeconomic impacts of the plan; a land swap with the Forest Service for the Eighth Street Aspen Ranger Station property; the purchase of privately owned land within the national forest (inholdings); additional wilderness areas; management of the Coal Basin area near Redstone, being reclaimed after decades of coal mining; and air quality in relation to snowmobile use and the amount of auto traffic generated by forest users.

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