Forest Service has dim outlook for skiing in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Forest Service has dim outlook for skiing in Aspen

The folks trying to do a better job of marketing Aspen for winter may be embarking on a lost cause – if U.S. Forest Service projections are accurate.

In the new management plan for the White River National Forest, the Forest Service justifies little to no expansion for the Aspen Skiing Co.’s four ski areas. The Forest Services’s premise is simple – demand won’t grow, so supply shouldn’t either.

“Looking at the Aspen-Snowmass complex, the Forest Service sees little reason to expect an increase in skier days,” said a summary of the plan. “These four resorts in Pitkin County are projected to only gain a collective 4,000 skier days annually by 2010, or three-tenths of 1 percent.

“There is little need for additional terrain for lifts and runs.”

The new forest plan contends that Aspen has too many factors working against it to be able to rack up big increases in skier and snowboard rider visits.

“Comparatively little growth is expected in the local population,” the forest plan summary says. “Aspen is too remote to gain many skiers from the Front Range, and out-of-state destination business is flat and likely to remain so.”

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Lean season

The Forest Service’s assumptions appear hard to argue based on the latest season’s results. The Skico reported a drop of 6 percent in visits during the 2001-02 season to a total of 1,268,705.

Snowmass – the Skico’s biggest business producer – suffered the worst loss. Its visits fell 8.5 percent to 676,505.

Statewide, skier and rider visits sagged 4.5 percent. This year is considered an anomaly by the ski industry because of the tough times facing the national economy and fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America.

Nevertheless, business has dropped three of the last five seasons for the Skico. Nationally, skier visits have been flat for more than a decade.

The White River National Forest plan sets a management policy for ski area expansions over the next 10 to 15 years. The philosophy of that segment of the plan accommodates strong growth in the four Summit County ski areas; moderate allowances for additional expansion in Eagle County’s Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas; and little expansion for the Skico’s four mountains.

The forest plan closes the door on new ski areas.

“The 1984 Forest Plan had envisioned possible new ski areas near Aspen, Breckenridge, Eagle, Redstone, and Rifle,” the plan summary says. “However, local communities expressed little interest and no support for them during the last 15 years.”

In Pitkin County, plans for a ski area in Owl Creek, between Burnt Mountain and Buttermilk, were shelved. The Skico agreed with that direction before the plan was finalized.

The potential for a ski area in the Coal Basin area in the hills west of Redstone was also eliminated.

Change in direction

The final forest plan changed the Forest Service’s direction on ski area expansion in two ways.

First, it drastically reduced the amount of land zoned for potential ski area expansion by 45 percent from what was zoned in the 1984 plan.

On the other hand, the final plan allows more ski area expansion than contemplated in an alternative proposal the Forest Service preferred in 1999.

That preferred alternative would have allowed 42,965 acres throughout the forest for present and future use for ski areas. The final plan allows 51,519 acres.

The flexibility for ski area development primarily benefits the Summit County areas of Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone.

The Forest Service anticipates most growth in skiers and riders will come from the Front Range. The ski areas closest to the Front Range – those in Summit County – will benefit the most, the feds figured.

Breckenridge currently has 2,000 skiable acres. The forest plan allows potential expansion of up to 5,500 acres. Breckenridge’s vast potential for expansion is justified, in the eyes of the Forest Service, to ease current crowding and accommodate future growth.

Breckenridge is the most heavily used ski resort in the forest with 687 visits per acre – a figure determined by dividing the total visits by total acres.

In comparison, Vail had 311 visits per acre and Snowmass had 246. Aspen Highlands had only 197 while Sunlight Mountain Resort outside of Glenwood Springs had 180.

Skico expansion potential

The Forest Service pared down expansion plans for the Skico’s four ski areas from what was allowed in the 1984 forest plan. During the public comment period, the Skico shocked the ski industry by endorsing the reduced acreage for potential expansion.

Aspen Highlands had expansion potential of 3,427 acres. The elimination of terrain such as Maroon Bowl brings potential down to 1,620 acres.

Snowmass formerly had 6,670 acres zoned for expansion, now it is 5,000 acres.

The Skico “abandoned” the idea of expanding Aspen Mountain onto Richmond Hill and Little Annie Basin, so Ajax retains the potential to expand only onto 255 acres of national forest land.

Buttermilk previously had the potential to expand by only 633 acres. That increased to 833 acres.

Skico planner Bill Kane said an initial glance at the forest plan didn’t produce any red flags. It generally appears that the Skico’s position and the plan’s direction match, he said.

However, Kane reserved final judgment for further review. He said the Skico’s senior staff would look at the plan and issue comments at a later date.

Little direction on tram

The new forest plan did little to address the debate over a transportation tram or gondola between Snowmass Ski Area and Buttermilk. The Skico has said it would pursue that proposal to relieve transportation congestion only if local governments support the idea.

Environmentalists have lobbied against a tram on grounds that it trammels wildlife habitat.

The Forest Service simply says, “This Revised Forest Plan makes no allocation specifically for aerial transportation corridors.” Elsewhere, the plan says aerial trams can be pursued and the plan altered to accommodate them, but “there must be strong local interest.”

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