Pitkin County commissioners hoof it to gain perspective on Skico’s Pandora’s proposal

Board members tour terrain on Aspen Mountain in preparation for Wednesday public hearing

The Pitkin County commissioners traded their boardroom for the slopes of Aspen Mountain Wednesday to get a better feel for the Pandora’s terrain prior to an anticipated decision Sept. 8 on Aspen Skiing Co.’s ski area expansion proposal.

Commissioners Kelly McNicholas Kury, Steve Child and Francie Jacober toured the upper and lower slopes of Pandora’s with three members of the county staff and two representatives of Aspen Skiing Co. Three members of the media as well as six members of the public also tagged along.

Commissioner Greg Poschman was ill and could not attend. Commissioner Patti Clapper has a conflict on the issue because her son-in-law works for Skico. She has recused herself from all hearings related to Pandora’s.

Child said during a break in the tour that getting on the ground and getting a feel for the terrain was much more fruitful than simply staring at maps.

The commissioners were on a fact-finding mission so they asked questions but did not discuss the merits of the Pandora’s plan. Skico wants to add 153 acres and a high-speed detachable quad chairlift in the Pandora’s area. The terrain is within the special use permit for Aspen Mountain Ski Area but not in the operational boundary. Skico is asking the commissioners to approve a rezoning of land to allow the ski area expansion.

The contingent drove up Summer Road, sidetracked onto Loushin Road on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain and parked at the bottom of the existing Walsh’s run before hoofing it into thick conifer forest. They explored where Skico wants to clear terrain for traditional ski trails and thin trees for glade skiing.

While stopped in a small clearing where an intermediate trail simply known now as P4 is proposed to be cut, Jacober asked Skico senior project manager Mak Keeling to describe the company’s strategy on tree removal.

“Nature has done a lot of the work,” Keeling said, pointing to dead trunks scattered on the forest floor and dead or dying trees still standing. Skico will rely as much as possible on removing the standing and downed dead trees, he said.

“Hopefully we don’t have to take out any tree, frankly, that’s a beautiful looking tree,” Keeling said.

Skico will take a conservative approach on tree removal over at least three years, according to Keeling.

Skico trails crew will use ribbons to mark trees proposed for removal. Rangers with the U.S. Forest Service will assess their work and if they agree on the targeted trees, paint markings on the downhill side. After the first year of thinning, Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol will check the work by skiing the terrain the following winter and decide if more selective thinning is warranted, Keeling said.

Trees 6 inches or less in diameter would be mulched on the spot and tilled into the ground, according to Keeling. Larger trees would be hauled out using Little Annie Road.

Skico and county staff provided maps of Aspen Mountain for the commissioners for their tour. Skico’s map put the Pandora’s terrain into perspective and highlighted the terrain the company wants to rezone. The commissioners regularly asked Keeling to orient them on the map to where they were on the ground.

Keeling’s tour took the commissioners across the width of the Pandora’s terrain a short distance above Loushin Road. They learned first-hand that the terrain is a mixture of pitches — some short, steep shots mixed with flat benches.

The commissioners later toured the upper edge of the terrain to see where the upper terminal of the lift would be. The group also toured Richmond Ridge on the backside of Aspen Mountain to gauge the effectiveness of Rural and Remote Zoning, which has prevented development of large homes on hundreds of thousands of backcountry in Pitkin County.

The commissioners are scheduled to resume debate of Pandora’s in a public hearing Sept. 8.

McNicholas Kury said after Wednesday’s tour that she felt a lot more informed on issues than before and has a new set of questions for county staff and Skico officials for the next meeting.

“I found the site visit to be immensely valuable in order to see the condition of the forest and the details of the proposal,” she said in an email. “It helped to see where Skico’s operational boundary does and doesn’t line up with the lands they own and the other activities they offer, especially the powder tours. And it helped me clarify who owns what in the vicinity of the proposed area for rezoning.”