Skico eyes changes at Snowmass |

Skico eyes changes at Snowmass

Scott Condon

Proposals to build two new chairlifts and expand off-piste skiing at Snowmass Ski Area can be undertaken without dire consequences to the environment, according to a preliminary review by the U.S. Forest Service.A draft Environmental Assessment released by the federal agency Thursday said the new chairlifts would have little effect because they are replacing existing ones.The Forest Service also concluded that the amount of skiable terrain could be expanded on Burnt Mountain without major impacts on the elk herd that resides nearby in the winter. Steps can also be taken, the EA stated, to reduce effects on “potential habitat” for Canadian lynx on Burnt Mountain.Environmentalists and interested citizens have until Jan. 28 to scrutinize the draft EA and submit written comments to the Aspen Ranger District at 806 W. Hallam St., Aspen, CO 81611. Copies of the EA are available on compact disk at the Forest Service’s office.Once the Forest Service considers public comments, it will issue a final decision on the chairlifts and terrain expansion being sought by the Aspen Skiing Co.Six-pack out of baseThe Skico’s highest priority among the projects under review is to build a new chairlift from the bottom of Fanny Hill to the top of Sam’s Knob, according to Bill Kane, Skico vice president of planning and development. It would be a six-passenger, high-speed lift.The 2-mile-long six-pack would have a midway unloading station that provides access to beginner terrain and the Spider Sabich Race Arena.”The existing Fanny Hill and Burlingame lifts would be removed once the new lift was installed,” said the EA. Kane said the existing Sam’s Knob lift would remain.The new lift would likely be dubbed the Snowmass Express. Its addition would allow skiers to get to the top of the Big Burn in two lifts rides rather than three.The other new lift reviewed in the EA is a replacement of the Sheer Bliss chair on the east side of the Big Burn. That ancient lift is so dreadfully slow that riders have been known to freeze to the chairs on snowy days and doze in warm weather before reaching the top.Kane said the alignment of the new lift would be altered slightly. The Big Burn high-speed quad chairlift will also need to be rebuilt due to normal wear and tear, he said.The Skico has dropped plans to replace those two lifts with one six-pack, Kane said. The new Sheer Bliss chair would be a high-speed quad. If approved by the Forest Service, that lift would be built sometime after 2005.Expanding the backcountry feelAlong with the replacement lifts, the Skico wants to construct a traverse, or catwalk, that would allow greater use of eastern Burnt Mountain.Currently, skiers and riders can take a short hike up Burnt Mountain to Long Shot, an intermediate trail through glades that offers a semi-backcountry experience. Long Shot leads to the Two Creeks base chairlift.The Skico wants to officially add 400 to 500 acres of tree skiing east of Long Shot, Kane said. That terrain is already used by backcountry skiers and riders.The proposed traverse would lead users back to Long Shot. Kane said the Skico wants to trade plans to build a chairlift to serve eastern Burnt Mountain for the right to build the traverse. That trade, he said, eliminates an expensive project for the Skico and is more environmentally friendly.The Forest Service review noted that earlier studies shows that the lift, which the Skico is willing to scrap, and other use of the national forest on Burnt Mountain, would lead to a 5 percent to 25 percent reduction in the population of what’s known as the Burnt Mountain elk herd.Since that study was completed in the early 1990s, the elk herd population has actually grown, according to the Forest Service. Part of the reason is development of Burnt Mountain has been slow. By eliminating the eastern Burnt Mountain chairlift, the population reduction may not be so drastic.The herd has also benefited from a closure of trails on Burnt Mountain during spring calving season. The use of more of the mountain for skiing would occur before calving season.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is