Opposing Burnt Mountain comes with steep price | AspenTimes.com

Opposing Burnt Mountain comes with steep price

The Skico's proposed expansion onto Burnt Mountain is at the heart of a tussle between the U.S. Forest Service and a Wyoming-based nonprofit environmental organization. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

The director of a nonprofit environmental organization claims the U.S. Forest Service is trying to make it too expensive for him to fight the Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposed expansion onto Burnt Mountain.Donald Duerr, director of The Ark Initiative, said the federal agency won’t supply him with public documents unless he pays about $3,000 in fees. As a small, nonprofit organization working to save threatened species and their habitat, The Ark Initiative cannot afford the price, he said. Duerr’s appealing the decision by the regional forester’s office in Denver to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth in Washington, D.C.A Forest Service official said The Ark Initiative didn’t meet the criteria necessary for a waiver of fees for processing the requested information.”We have a responsibility to guard against spending taxpayer dollars in an unwise manner,” said Marianne Frazier, who handles requests under the Freedom of Information Act for the regional forester’s office.Duerr requested at least 39 documents or pieces of information about the Skico’s proposed expansion onto Burnt Mountain from the Aspen Ranger District’s office earlier this year. Some documents, such as a 1994 Environmental Impact Statement that approved a large share of the expansion, were provided to Duerr. But he said information vital to his challenge, such as the Skico’s proposed development plan, was withheld. Duerr claimed the Forest Service is making it tough for him to collect information because he opposes the Skico’s expansion. The Skico wants to add about 500 acres of “semi-backcountry skiing” on Burnt Mountain by glading three runs similar to the existing Long Shot. The Skico also wants to log and widen a catwalk that would lead skiers and riders back to the Two Creeks portion of Snowmass Ski Area.As part of its review, the Forest Service is accepting public comments on the Skico’s plan through Friday, Aug. 26.

White River National Forest spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo said the decision to charge Duerr for some documents has nothing to do with his position on Burnt Mountain.”We want to release information. We don’t have anything to hide,” said Ponozzo, who initially handled Duerr’s Freedom of Information Act request. She forwarded the request to Frazier because of the size and the uncertainty of The Ark Initiative’s eligibility for a waiver from fees.Frazier said nonprofit organizations don’t automatically qualify for waivers from fees for searching for and copying information. They must prove that the information addresses an issue of public interest and that the organization can disseminate that information in a way that benefits the public.Thus, the regional forester’s office informed Duerr that he had to pay $2,438.60 for a government worker to search for all the information he requested and copy it, and $580 for an estimated 3,000 copies. The work was being billed at $36.77 per hour.Both sides took a stab at what they felt was a compromise. The Forest Service offered to make much of the information available in Aspen, where it is stored. Duerr countered that the information should be sent to the Forest Service office in Pinedale, Wyo., where he lives. He said he would review it at that office. That would have eliminated government copying costs.Neither side accepted the other’s proposal.Duerr said he will submit a challenge to the Skico project, and he is urging others to fight it, as well. The project has a complicated, contentious history. The Skico withdrew its proposal for development on Burnt Mountain in the late 1980s, but resurrected it a short time later. The Forest Service approved the plan in 1994 after the release of an Environmental Impact Statement.

After more than a decade, the Skico wants to act on that approval. Skico officials maintain they are being environmentally friendly because they have taken several steps to ease the impact on Burnt Mountain, including dropping a plan to run a gondola from the Snowmass base to the top of Burnt Mountain; dropping plans for a chairlift on east Burnt Mountain in return for the proposed catwalk; and planning to keep the terrain more natural and less like a standard, groomed ski run.Some critics contend that adding official terrain at Snowmass will draw too many people and ruin a popular backcountry stash. Others argue the environmental cost is too high, despite the Skico’s efforts.Duerr said the 1994 EIS didn’t discuss the project’s effects on a roadless area. Much of the area between Snowmass and West Buttermilk is roadless and designated in the 2002 White River National Forest Plan to be managed in a way that preserves its roadless characteristics.The issue is important, Duerr said, because an inventoried roadless area would be eligible for addition to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.Jim Stark, who is handling the Forest Service review of the Skico plan, said the terrain the Skico wants to add is outside the roadless area. No terrain within the ski area boundaries is designated roadless, he said. Part of Burnt Mountain is within the Skico’s permit area.Duerr countered that the expansion onto Burnt Mountain could affect the roadless characteristics of the adjoining terrain.

In addition to the roadless issue, Duerr claimed the Skico project would have too great of an impact on habitat of sensitive species; it might eliminate potential lynx habitat. The Forest Service said its current review will address that issue.”Our goal is to keep them out of Burnt Mountain,” Duerr said. He said The Ark Initiative fights to protect sensitive species on public lands throughout the West, so it’s not unusual for the Wyoming-based organization to weigh in on a Snowmass issue.The public may send comments to Jim Stark, U.S. Forest Service, Aspen Ranger District, 806 W. Hallam St., Aspen, CO 81611. Comments may also be e-mailed to jstark@fs.fed.us. They must be e-mailed or postmarked by Aug. 26.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com