Group files appeal over Burnt Mountain

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen Skiing Co. opened about 230 acres of additional terrain on Burnt Mountain for skiing and riding last winter. A conservation group is fighting in court to eliminate the potential for a chairlift on Burnt Mountain. / Aspen Times file

An environmental organization that unsuccessfully tried to prevent Aspen Skiing Co. from thinning trees on a portion of Burnt Mountain last year is back in court to try to snuff any potential for chairlifts, grooming or motorized uses in the sidecountry swath adjacent to Snowmass.

The Ark Initiative and its executive director, Donald Duerr, filed an appeal earlier this month in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia over a federal court’s decision to let Skico advance with its plan. William Eubanks II, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said the issue is still relevant, even though the tree-thinning occurred last year, because Forest Service approval allows Skico to undertake other activities on Burnt Mountain.

“It’s more about the overall feel of the area,” Eubanks said. He said his clients have told him they are “fine” with skiers and snowboarders of adequate ability using Burnt Mountain. They don’t want uses that interfere with the solitude and natural feel of the area.

“They’re not fighting to keep it to themselves,” Eubanks said.

After thinning trees last summer and fall, Skico opened a greater amount of Burnt Mountain to skiing last winter. Previously, only the Long Shot trail was available for customers willing to undertake a short hike from the Elk Camp section of Snowmass. About 230 acres of additional terrain opened last season east of Long Shot. The terrain had limited appeal because of the hike and because it requires negotiating tight trees to get from Burnt Mountain back to the Two Creeks base at Snowmass.

Skico hopes to thin trees this summer along the egress route. The Forest Service is undertaking an environmental assessment that is scheduled to be completed this spring. Eubanks said the Forest Service appears to be in a tough spot with that decision.

“If they don’t grant it, the Skico will probably sue. If they do grant it, conservation groups will probably sue,” Eubanks said.

The work on the egress is separate from the lands targeted in the federal court appeal. The Ark Initiative and Duerr want a court to determine that an estimated 600 to 1,000 acres on Burnt Mountain has “roadless qualities,” Eubanks said. They don’t want the land designated roadless by the court. They want a court order that will force the Forest Service to go back and undertake greater study on whether the area should be deemed roadless.

If the Burnt Mountain terrain is designated roadless, that will prevent construction of a chairlift and routes for motorized uses, Eubanks said.

The Forest Service’s approval of a Snowmass master plan contemplated east and west Burnt Mountain chairlifts. Skico officials insisted starting eight years ago that they weren’t interested in building the East Burnt Mountain chairlift, closest to West Buttermilk. The company has conceptual approval for a West Burnt Mountain chairlift along the Long Shot trail.

Skico is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, as is Thomas Tidwell in his role as chief of the U.S. Forest Service.