Forest Service seeks comments on Skico’s plan to expand Aspen Mountain terrain, snowmaking | AspenTimes.com

Forest Service seeks comments on Skico’s plan to expand Aspen Mountain terrain, snowmaking

This image from Aspen Skiing Co.'s application to the U.S. Forest Service shows the proposed Pandora chairlift in red. The proposed tree skiing south of the lift is shaded in green.

The public is getting its chance to comment on Aspen Skiing Co.'s proposal to add the Pandora terrain to Aspen Mountain and enlarge the snowmaking system at the mountaintop.

The U.S. Forest Service announced Wednesday it will hold a public open house to discuss the project Wednesday. The agency is urging interested parties to educate themselves about the proposal and submit comments by June 15.

Skico proposed adding 148 acres of terrain in the Pandora area on the eastern, upper half of the mountain. That terrain is located to skier's right of the Walsh's run.

The proposal is for 77 acres on 15 traditional ski trails and 71 acres of gladed trails. It would be a mix of intermediate and expert terrain. The proposal would allow the extension of the existing Walsh's, Hyrup's and Kristi trails, three popular expert runs.

A chairlift would be added to serve the terrain, but Skico hasn't determined yet if it should be a fixed-grip or detachable lift. The upper terminal would be south of the upper Silver Queen Gondola terminal.

Skico's application said expanding into Pandora would add tree skiing that is in high demand among customers but in short supply at Aspen Mountain.

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"While the cleared trails remain popular, an increasing number of users enjoy gladed terrain within more natural settings," Skico's application said. "This trend is evidenced by the increased use of side-country terrain — the areas immediately adjacent to the ski area boundaries."

The Forest Service acknowledged Skico's proposal addresses three issues the agency feels need to be addressed at Aspen Mountain.

"There is a need for enhanced terrain variety, skier circulation and snowmaking coverage that would collectively address the skier recreation experience at Aspen Mountain," said a letter from White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams to interested parties.

The proposal would add "minimally maintained, lift-served, undeveloped terrain and additional traditional alpine trails," Fitzwilliams noted.

Circulation on the east side of the ski area would be enhanced by a new chairlift and terrain, he added, and "reliable and consistent snow coverage" is needed on the upper mountain. One preliminary finding by the Forest Service is that the east side of the ski area is under-utilized. That side of the mountain is served by the Gent's Ridge chairlift, known as the "couch" because the ride is so slow.

One of the issues identified by the Forest Service for further review is how the Skico plan "may alter the existing recreation experience on National Forest Service lands outside of the Aspen Mountain special-use-permit boundary."

Adding the Pandora terrain to the existing operational boundary would eliminate use of those slopes by backcountry skiers who access them via snowmobiles or with climbing skins.

"This would alter the recreation experience for users currently utilizing portions of Richmond Ridge outside of the existing operational boundary," the Forest Service said.

Developing the Pandora terrain also could affect the scenery, according to a preliminary finding. The project would require "vegetation removal" on about 40 acres of national forest and 37 acres of private lands, according to the Forest Service.

The proposal addresses concerns about a changing climate and challenges in getting terrain open at Thanksgiving time.

Skico officials said at the end of the season that enhancing the snowmaking system at Aspen Mountain became a higher priority after the company struggled to open terrain this season because of warm temperatures and a lack of natural snow in November and December.

The proposal would add snowmaking to 53 acres on six trails at the top of the mountain. The system would require a pumping station, 18,000 feet of underground pipeline and two ponds that could store 10 million gallons of water.

The Forest Service is offering several methods for people to educate themselves about the proposal. The agency and contractor leading the review created an interactive website that walks viewers through the plan and the Forest Service's preliminary findings. That can be accessed at tinyurl.com/y9ujpblg.

The Forest Service's project website can be found at http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=53847.

The public open house will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Limelight Hotel's Monarch Room. Forest Service and Skico employees will be on hand to answer questions. The agency is urging interested parties to submit comments by June 15.

The Forest Service has determined that the project warrants an environmental assessment rather than a more exhaustive environmental impact statement. All the components are part of the Aspen Mountain Master Development Plan that the Forest Service reviewed and accepted earlier this year. Each individual component must be reviewed and approved prior to construction.

Aspen Mountain is unusual among ski areas because it is a mosaic of public and private lands. So many mining claims from the silver era remained in private hands and were acquired by Skico. Aspen Mountain is a mix of 63 percent private and 37 percent public, according to the Forest Service.

Most of the public land that Skico wants to add is already within its special-use permit from the Forest Service. However, about 21 acres — which includes portions of trails and the chairlift route — are outside the boundary and would require a forest plan adjustment to alter the boundary. Skico is proposing to remove an equal amount of terrain from the special use permit.

Skico hopes to acquire approvals in time to start construction in summer 2019, the Forest Service said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

HOW TO COMMENT

In a statement released Wednesday, the Forest Service said public comments should include: (1) name, address, telephone number and organization represented, if any; (2) reference the “Aspen Mountain Pandora Development and Summit Snowmaking Projects” and (3) specific facts, concerns or issues, and supporting reasons why they should be considered. Written comments must be submitted via mail, fax, electronically or in person (Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., excluding holidays) to: Scott Fitzwilliams, c/o T.J. Broom, Mountain Sports – Special Uses Program Lead, White River National Forest, Aspen – Sopris Ranger District, 620 Main Street, Carbondale, CO 81623.

Electronic comments including attachments can be submitted to: https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=53847