Passions run high when it comes to Aspen Mountain development plans

Partygoers enjoy closing day festivities at the Sundeck at Aspen Mountain in April 2017. Aspen residents and visitors are passionate when it comes to issues affecting Aspen Mountain.
Aspen Times file photo

This year has proven that nothing is easy and passions still run high when it comes to development at Aspen Mountain ski area.

The Lift One Plan at the base of Lift 1A divided voters of Aspen when a ballot measure approving the development squeaked by 1,555 to 1,529 in March.

And on Wednesday, Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposal to expand into the Pandora’s terrain deadlocked the Pitkin County commissioners 2-2 and drew a mixed reaction from people who spoke at a public hearing or submitted written comments.

“I’m a little nervous. This is the biggest crowd I’ve had to address in the last eight months,” new Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury told the audience at a hearing shortly before the public comment was opened up. She was elected in November.

“If you don’t take a stand for the environment here, where? If not now, when?” — Claude Salter

The commissioners have held seven hearings on Pandora’s and Skico’s broader proposal to update the ski area’s master development plan.

Numerous people on both sides of the issue spoke. Longtime locals and avid skiers Brent Waldron and Mike Maple were among the supporters who touted the benefits of adding 167 acres of tree skiing and new trails on the upper east side of the mountain as well as a new high-speed quad chairlift. They said it would be a great addition to Aspen Mountain that would appeal to today’s skiers and snowboarders.

Waldron said the new terrain would “open the mountain up” and ease weekend crowding on the terrain served by Aspen Mountain’s Ajax Express lift.

It’s a “public benefit paid by a private entity,” he said.

Maple said the project is a major benefit to a broad spectrum of the community because it addresses the desires and demands of skiers. Making the ski area more appealing to today’s customers benefits Aspen as a ski town overall, he said.

Aspen resident Griff Smith didn’t attend the hearing but submitted written comments. He said he has skied Aspen Mountain for 47 years and enthusiastically supported Skico’s proposal.

“The ski industry is a very competitive business and Aspen-Snowmass needs to upgrade and improve its facilities to remain a viable player in today’s market,” he wrote.

On the other end of the spectrum are Aspen Mountain loyalists Mike Kashinski and Zach Cyrus. Both said Aspen Mountain has two underutilized chairlifts that Skico should address rather than pursuing expansion. Skico hasn’t established the need for an additional chairlift and terrain, Kashinski said.

He suggested Skico upgrade Lift 1A on the west side of the ski area base to alleviate pressure on the Silver Queen Gondola. Upgrading the Gent’s Ridge chairlift, also known as Lift 7, would result in the mountain being better utilized, he said.

Cyrus said he knew of many working people who opposed the proposed rezoning necessary to make the ski area expansion possible. He said they couldn’t take time off from their jobs to attend an afternoon hearing in the middle of the week. He took the day off to attend.

The Pandora’s terrain currently attracts “sidecountry” skiers who hike into the terrain and cut back into the lower Walsh’s trail. Thinning trees, cutting trails and adding a lift will attract more intermediate skiers to Aspen Mountain, Cyrus said. That will be a problem at the end of the day when skiers and riders are funneling down Copper Bowl and Spar Gulch, he predicted.

“To me, Aspen Mountain is an experts’ mountain,” Cyrus said.

He concluded by claiming that Skico had a “slick presentation” and brought in a lot of experts and supporters to pitch the plan, but the proposal still didn’t add up.

Safety and environmental impacts were also on the minds of speakers. A somber moment came when Killeen Brettmann noted, “My husband was killed in Pandora’s 10 years ago.”

Cory Brettmann was an expert skier and a member of the Aspen Mountain ski patrol. He skied Pandora’s on a day off, triggered a slide and lost his life in December 2008.

Killeen Brettmann made a point that was emphasized by several other speakers at the commissioners’ hearings on Aug. 21 and 28 — safety would be boosted if Skico added Pandora’s to its operational boundary and had the ski patrol perform avalanche control work and sweeps of the terrain.

Skico would do “a really good job operating that terrain,” Brettmann said.

The expansion also makes sense from a business standpoint, she said. Skico has noted Aspen Mountain has very limited gladed skiing to offer its customers. It has fewer acres of that terrain than many competing resorts. Many people like the backcountry feel of skiing the trees. Think of what Highland Bowl did for the stature of Aspen Highlands ski area, Brettmann said.

Pandora’s would give Aspen Mountain a similar type of boost by providing a different type of terrain for the ski area, she said.

John Bakken countered that line of reasoning in written comments he submitted to the county. He urged Skico to pursue what he termed a more environmentally friendly alternative. Skico should promote Pandora’s as backcountry skiing to appeal to the growing ski mountaineering demographic.

“The Ikon Pass users from the Front Range are in the 25- to 34-year-old range as pointed out by (Skico President and CEO) Mike Kaplan in a recent article,” Bakken wrote. “While standing in the massive Temerity lift lines (at Aspen Highlands) we all suffered through last winter, I noticed that most of these Ikon Pass users have the latest three-pin alpine touring set-ups. Wouldn’t it be great if Skico developed a designated sidecountry area where they could ski down and skin back up? No lift needed. What a great concept. Talk about keeping Aspen Mountain relevant!”

Some comments focused on Skico’s plans to thin and clear-cut trees for the expansion. A maximum of 40 percent of trees would be removed from 104 acres of Pandora’s where Skico wants to provide tree skiing. Another 76 acres would be cleared for standard trails. About 4,240 tons of timber would be removed in total, according to Skico’s plan.

Company officials have noted the U.S. Forest Service compiled a forest health plan earlier this decade that identified Aspen Mountain as a site where thinning would be beneficial to help diversify ages and types of trees.

Waldron noted that about 50 percent of the trees already were dead in the Pandora area, based on his hike in the area this summer. Critics contend that Skico’s plan is too much tree removal at one time.

Claude Salter criticized Skico’s broader proposal on several fronts, labeling it “environmentally insensitive and unacceptable.”

“Locals have stated they want new ski terrain and the Skiing Company has stated they need the expansion ‘to stay relevant,’ which all sounds like a midlife crisis and not justification to slaughter an old growth forest or rezone 167 acres,” Salter read from her prepared statement.

She urged the commissioners to take an environmental stand.

“If you don’t take a stand for the environment here, where?” she asked. “If not now, when?”

Like people submitting comments, the county commissioners were split on the Pandora’s plan — specifically the rezoning of land necessary to make it work. McNicholas Kury and Steve Child were against rezoning. George Newman and Greg Poschman supported it.

Skico officials asked the board to delay taking a formal vote so Skico could respond to the commissioners’ comments and possibly amend their application. The review will resume Sept. 11.