Forest Service authorizes Pandora terrain expansion, more snowmaking at Aspen Mountain
SKICO’S PANDORA PROJECT
Following are the components of Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposed expansion into the Pandora terrain and snowmaking on Aspen Mountain along with comments from the Forest Service review.
1. New trails: Skico wants to add 79 acres of traditional, cleared trails and 101 acres of gladed trails on the upper east end of Aspen Mountain. The project would also allow the downhill extension of the existing Walsh’s, Kristi and Hyrup’s trails.
The Forest Service said there is a need for more diverse ski terrain. “While the existing traditionally cleared trails remain popular at Aspen Mountain, an increasing number of its guests seek undeveloped terrain as well as traditional trails located within more natural-appearing and remote settings.”
2. Pandora chairlift: Skico is proposing a detachable quad chairlift that would cover 4,191 in slope length and 1,220 vertical feet. The upper terminal would be south and slightly east of the upper terminal of the Silver Queen Gondola.
The Forest Service said the addition of the lift will improve skier utilization of the upper east side of Aspen Mountain.
3. Additional snowmaking: Skico wants to add 53 acres of snowmaking on the upper portion of the mountain. It would cover One and Two Leaf, Silver Bell, Dipsy Doodle, Buckhorn, North American and Copper Trail.
The Forest Service said there is a need to “provide reliable and consistent snow coverage on the upper mountain, especially during the early and late parts of the season, while reducing peak flows and sediment entering Spar Gulch and Keno Gulch.”
The U.S. Forest Service has concluded that the benefits of expanding into the Pandora terrain at Aspen Mountain outweigh the potential costs.
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams wrote in a draft decision released Wednesday that adding 180 acres of ski terrain on the upper east side of the mountain will create the diversity of terrain that skiers and riders crave. Constructing a new detachable quad chairlift to serve that terrain will improve skier circulation on the mountain, he said.
And expanding the snowmaking system by 53 acres at the top of the mountain will ensure Skico can open even during low-snow years, according to Fitzwilliams.
“In the context of the existing developed conditions at Aspen Mountain and the potential benefits to the Aspen Mountain guests, I believe the benefits outweigh the potential costs,” Fitzwilliams wrote. “Overall, I feel my decision will improve the experience of guests to the Forest within the Aspen Mountain Special Use Permit area in conjunction with the state environmental impacts.”
Skico has long eyed expansion into the Pandora terrain to the skier’s right of the existing Walsh’s run on Aspen Mountain. The expansion will add about 79 acres of traditional ski trails and 101 acres of tree skiing. The new terrain will be a mix of expert and intermediate runs.
The Forest Service’s environmental assessment said Aspen Mountain could use greater diversity of terrain. It currently offers 475 acres of “traditional” ski runs that are cleared of trees and “groomable.” There is another 224 acres of lift-accessed gladed or open terrain that is minimally maintained. Most of the available tree skiing is through islands of 10 acres or less located between cleared trails.
The ski area has a lower ratio of cleared trails to undeveloped terrain than other ski areas in the White River National Forest, the study concluded. Adding the Pandora terrain will increase the diversity and answer the demand for more adventurous skiing.
Developing the terrain will come at a cost, the assessment acknowledged. Clearing trails and building a chairlift will eliminate the backcountry skiing feel that currently exists.
“The Pandora area is currently ‘side-country’ in that it can be accessed via a lift, but a lift cannot be used to repeat the terrain and skiers must hike out after descending,” the assessment said.
The terrain is used by Aspen Mountain Powder Tours, owned by Skico, as well as skiers and riders using snowmobiles to make laps or accessing the area via backcountry gates and skinning back up after taking a run.
“Aspen Mountain currently estimates that anywhere from 0 to 100 people use the existing Pandora area per day,” the assessment said.
The “Comfortable Carrying Capacity” — a planning tool used to determine the optimum level of utilization for a resort — of the Pandora lift and terrain is about 600 people, the study said.
“Those seeking the current user density of the Pandora area would have to recreate farther south on Richmond Ridge,” study said, referring to the area south of the upper terminal of the Silver Queen Gondola.
Skico also proposed expanding snowmaking within the existing ski area. The snowmaking infrastructure currently covers about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, to the Deer Park area. Skico wants to expand snowmaking by 53 acres, covering six additional trails (see related story).
David Corbin, Skico’s senior vice president of planning and development, said some aspects of the Aspen Mountain plan must go through review by Pitkin County as well as the Forest Service. In the best-case scenario, he said, the approvals would be in hand by spring. Skico would pursue installation of the snowmaking system infrastructure in the summer and probably get the system operational on the One and Two Leaf and Silver Bell trails, allowing snowmaking from top-to-bottom.
“We wouldn’t get all five or six trails and that infrastructure in this summer,” he said. But getting two trails covered makes the connection from the summit to the top of the current snowmaking coverage.
Skico would also strive to cut the Pandora trails next summer and then construct the chairlift in summer 2020. The earliest that lift-served skiing could be a reality in Pandora is the 2020-21 season, he said.
A bonus of the Pandora project is the extension of the existing double-black diamond Walsh’s, Kristi and Hyrup’s run further down the slope by about 1,500 linear feet. Skiers could catch a collector trail that would lead them to the Pandora lift.
After the White River National Forest staff and consultants conducted an environmental assessment that examined everything from the effects on elk to the extra runoff from expanded snowmaking, Fitzwilliams determined Skico’s project has no significant impact.
The draft decision now faces a 45-day period where individuals or groups who submitted comments earlier in the review can file objections. No new parties can file objections. If no objections are filed, the decision becomes final. If objections are filed, the Forest Service will attempt to resolve them administratively.
Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop submitted earlier comments about concerns over impacts to elk and other wildlife. The conservation group and Colorado Parks and Wildlife sought a seasonal closure of the Pandora terrain during spring.
The Forest Service environmental assessment said a field survey found no evidence of elk calving in or adjacent to the Pandora terrain, but it said another survey will be conducted next summer. If evidence of calving is found, a closure will be considered. The assessment also noted that Skico isn’t planning summer resort activities in Pandora. If it changes direction, further environmental review will be necessary.
Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Will Roush said the survey is “a start.” He noted the area is mapped by state wildlife officials as potential calving area.
He said the group hasn’t decided yet on whether or not to file an objection, but it is a useful tool to accomplish policy changes.
In the big picture, Roush said, the Pandora expansion itself probably won’t be harmful to wildlife, but there is a cumulative effect from development of the backcountry.
“It’s a case of a death by a thousand cuts for our wildlife,” Roush said.
He wants to see more protection for the backcountry rather than development.
Documents associated with the Pandora application and review are available for download on the White River National Forest website at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=53847.
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