Let the debate begin: Pros and cons submitted to county on proposed Pandora’s expansion

Letter writers frame issues at center of Pitkin County review

The Pandora’s terrain is from the center of the photo to the left. The existing Walsh’s terrain on Aspen Mountain is the cleared area to the right.
Courtesy image

Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposal to expand Aspen Mountain ski area into the Pandora’s terrain has not reached public hearings in the Pitkin County review process yet, but the debate has already started to sizzle.

The Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission voted strictly on a procedural matter Tuesday and did not get into the merits of Skico’s proposal. However, several people submitted letters that framed the issues that are likely to dominate the expansion debate this year.

Proponents contended that adding 153 acres of skiing mostly in gladed terrain would add an element of skiing that Aspen Mountain currently lacks. They said it would help Aspen Skiing Co. maintain its competitive edge.

Opponents wrote that the expansion is unnecessary and carries too much of an environmental cost.

Longtime Aspen resident and current City Council candidate John Doyle said Skico’s four ski areas have some of the shortest lift lines in the entire industry. He questioned why the addition of terrain is necessary.

“This proposal seeks a zoning change, the removal of 108 acres of trees, changes to public access at the top of the mountain, the continuing fragmentation of elk habitat, the sights and sounds of construction and logging, then the sights and sounds of snowcats grooming at night and increased avalanche mitigation activity (explosives),” Doyle wrote to the county commissioners. “The bottom terminal of the proposed lift is less than a linear mile above the valley floor, the North Star Nature Preserve.”

But another longtime Aspen resident, David Stapleton, wrote in support of Skico’s plan.

“As someone who is a fourth generation Aspenite, I believe that offering more terrain and something new is ideal for keeping our ski town up to date,” he wrote. “Every other ski resort in Colorado and beyond has done ski area expansions except Aspen Mountain, other than opening a few runs within the existing areas, which is not much.”

Stapleton said many old-timers have been skiing the same runs since the 1950s.

“Aspen needs to keep up with the times and offer something new,” he wrote. “Aspen is a worldly place, and I know we have people that are against change and/or growth in our special town, and I agree to some extent, but growth in a very responsible manner means that we continue on the path of being known as Aspen. A very special place.”

Another Aspen native with deep family roots offered a different perspective.

“Aspen is a ski town, but Pandora’s is totally unnecessary,” Pierre Wille wrote in a letter to the commissioners.

He said Skico’s expansion would require a spot change to the Rural and Remote Zone, landmark action taken in the 1990s to prevent the back of Aspen Mountain from becoming another Red Mountain, developed with multiple mega-mansions. Allowing a change to Rural and Remote would be a “dangerous precedent,” he claimed.

Wille also said the expansion should be denied on environmental grounds.

“Now is the time to act and address climate change,” he said. “With over 100 acres of logging, increased habitat fragmentation, lift construction, road construction and a lot of concrete this project is not necessary or needed. Elk may not have their calves in this area, according to the (Division of Wildlife, now known as Colorado Parks and Wildlife), but I do know firsthand that many elk live spring, summer and fall in this area.”

Wille challenged Skico to “defy ordinary” and make Pandora’s terrain a backcountry controlled area rather than lift served.

Skico has eyed for Pandora’s for decades and got U.S. Forest Service approval for the expansion in 2019. The county Planning and Zoning Commission also recommended approval of the plan in 2019, but the application stalled when it went before the county commissioners.

The planning commission Tuesday approved a Skico request to consider a land-use procedure that would allow the expansion. Public meetings will be held at dates to be determined.

Skico wants to add 153 acres of terrain and a high-speed quad chairlift to the upper east side of Aspen Mountain. The expansion also would allow extended skiing on existing trails such as Walsh’s and Hyrup’s.

While the new terrain would feature some traditional, cleared ski trails, nearly half of the new terrain would be in thinned trees.

Victor Gerdin is a planner with Skico, but he submitted a letter offering what he said is a skier’s perspective on the expansion. He said Aspen would benefit from the increase in usable terrain, improved skier circulation and faster repeat access.

“Because the existing acreage of Aspen Mountain is actually quite small — 475 acres of developed trails, with 224 acres additional minimally maintained terrain — this addition will facilitate a 17% increase (82 acres) of developed terrain and a 32% increase (71 acres) of minimally maintained terrain,” Gerdin wrote. “Simply put, the addition will allow me to experience less crowding on the mountain and spread out as a skier.”

The Pandora’s high-speed quad will allow skiers and snowboarders who prefer that type of terrain to return to it that much faster or lapping. Another bonus is it would eliminate the need to use the Gent’s Ridge chairlift, which is notoriously slow and known as “the Couch,” Gerdin pointed out.

A former Skico employee also endorsed the proposal. Steve Sewell, a former mountain manager at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass, said Pandora’s would add exceptional terrain for experts and intermediates.

“Currently, that area is heavily used by locals, often becoming skied out and bumped up even before the Face or the Back of Bell,” he wrote. “By including Pandora’s into the operational permit area, ASC will be able to efficiently glade and cut trails that will offer quality skiing to all of the resort’s guests.”

One of skiers who currently uses the Pandora’s terrain urged county officials to reject the proposed expansion.

“Leave the backcountry alone,” wrote Lawrence Butler, a resident of Conundrum Creek Road who said he frequently hikes and skins off Little Annie’s Road and Richmond Ridge.

“When will enough be enough for Skico?” Butler asked. “Let’s try harder to preserve the remaining undeveloped areas in Aspen.”

County officials will announce at a future date when the planning commission will take up debate on Skico’s expansion. That board’s advisory vote will be forwarded to the county commissioners for a final decision.