Open space eyed for new backcountry hut in Summit County
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. – Local backcountry skiers are once again eyeing a site on Baldy Mountain, near Breckenridge, to build a new 12-person hut. This time the proposed location is a 15-acre open space parcel owned jointly by Summit County and the town of Breckenridge.
Summit Huts Association director Mike Zobbe approached the county’s open space advisory council Wednesday with a preliminary plan for the new hut. First and foremost, he said, there’s the fundamental question of whether a backcountry hut is an appropriate use of open space.
Open space council member Chris Hart cautioned that the county commissioners might take issue with the plan, based on a sensitivity to fee-based recreation activities on land the public has already paid for with taxes.
Zobbe replied that it’s a valid question. The Summit Huts Association believes that a hut is is compatible with the county’s open space program, he said, anticipating a lively philosophical discussion during an as-yet unscheduled joint meeting of the county and Breckenridge open space groups.
Commercial fee-based use of public lands is not unprecedented. The Forest Service, for example, allows private companies to operate marinas and campgrounds under contract to private companies. The Colorado State Park program also does well with operating camping and other recreational facilities on state-owned land.
If it ultimately gets approved, the new Baldy hut would be the first locally to operate on an open space parcel. Most other huts operate on national forest land under a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service.
The current Forest Service regime in the White River National Forest and on the Dillon Ranger District have told the huts group that it needs to look hard at finding a piece of private land for a new hut – thus the focus on the open space plot.
“When you make a proposal like this, there’s a Forest Service requirement,” Zobbe said. “The Forest Service asks, is there a suitable piece of private property nearby?”
“That’s always been Forest Service policy,” said District Forest Service Ranger Jan Cutts.
The private land requirement has always been something for the Forest Service to weigh as it considers applications for uses on public land. But their is apparently some room for interpretation and some people question whether the rule is applied even-handedly.
For example, when Copper Mountain sought to develop a new parking lot on national forest land (under permit to Copper) near Highway 91, previous District Ranger Rick Newton allowed the proposal to proceed, even though there is undeveloped private land in the area.
Cutts wasn’t in her current position at that time, but said that, as she understands it, the private-land condition was part of the discussion, leading the Forest Service and resort to conclude that there wasn’t a viable parking alternative on private land. Additionally, Cutts explained that the land for the parking expansion at Copper is already under permit to the ski area. That also plays a role in the agency’s deliberations, she said.
In any case, the Forest Service would entertain a proposal for a new hut, should local officials shoot down the open space idea, Cutts added. She said the Forest Service tries to treat all project proponents fairly, and discounted the idea that Summit Huts was asked to look at non-federal lands as a way of reducing the agency’s work load.
Placing the hut on open space could help shorten the review and approval process, since it wouldn’t require full-on federal scrutiny. But a planned access trail would use National Forest land, and that use would still be subject to Forest Service review and approval, said Paul Semmer, local land expert with the agency.
The Forest Service allocated parts of the mountains and forests in Summit County for non-motorized winter recreation in the 2002 White River National Forest Plan. The national forest land around the proposed hut site falls into that category, which generally deems huts to be an appropriate use, subject to site-specific review and permitting.
The Summit Huts master plan envisions several additional huts in addition to Francie’s Cabin, Janet’s Cabin and the Section House. The group’s early vision was for a hut system that would enable skiers to connect a tour around Summit County’s mountains.
But with population growth and more recreational use in the county, the group has been finding it hard to carry out that vision. The last proposal for a new hut between Copper Mountain and Vail Pass was stymied by wildlife concerns. That site had a potential donor willing to fund at least part of the cost of building a new hut.
Summit Huts is not pushing the current hut site because of a donor deadline, Zobbe said.
“We believe in what we’re doing,” he said, explaining that backcountry hut skiing is an important piece of the winter experience in Summit County, linking back to the tradition of self-sufficient, human-powered winter travel.
Plus, the current hut system is operating at near 100 percent practical capacity, Zobbe said. Peak season hut overnights are allocated in a lottery, showing there is a demand for additional hut space.
The new hut, proposed for a location on the flanks of Baldy Mountain, near Breckenridge, would be about 1,400 square-feet, sleeping about 12 people. By comparison, Francie’s and Janet’s sleep about 20 guests.
Zobbe said Summit Huts wants to move away from using wood as a heat source, and is planning the new hut with an emphasis on solar features. The smaller size and focus on renewable energy are part of a push to further reduce the environmental footprint of backcountry hut skiing, already deemed by many to be an eco-friendly activity – especially when compared to other energy hogging winter sports.
Even if the open space panels give a thumbs up, the plan for the new hut could face significant opposition from residents of French Gulch, where the 4.5 mile trail to the hut would start. Residents of the area presented the county open space group with a petition opposing the hut, signed by more than 100 area residents.
Several people who live in the Mountain Meadows subdivision attended the open space meeting to express their concerns. A new hut could impact the privacy of residents in the neighborhood, some of whom bought cabins 30 years ago because they value of the secluded feel of upper French Gulch.
Parking is a big concern for some residents. who said that, already now, access to their properties is sometimes hindered by cars parked along French Gulch Road.
Other people from the area cited concerns about elk-calving in the area, as well as the potential threat of avalanches.
The last two concerns are, to some degree, red herrings, to distract from the general not-in-my-backyard tone of the critical comments. Impacts to elk calving can easily be mitigated with seasonal use restrictions, as is already common around some of the area’s major resorts. And dealing with potential avalanches is part and parcel of the backcountry skiing experience.
Zobbe said Summit Huts anticipated all the concerns, as they are similar to the comments that surfaced several years ago, when earlier plans for huts in a similar location were floated.
“All these people have valid concerns,” Zobbe said, not discounting any of the comments. “This is all quite preliminary. We don’t have any timeline agenda. We hope the hut proposal can be part of a comprehensive plan to address traffic, parking and other neighborhood concerns,” Zobbe concluded.
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