Skico vows to protect elk |

Skico vows to protect elk

Scott Condon

The Aspen Skiing Co. pledged Friday that it won’t undertake any new activities at Elk Camp that wildlife officials say will hurt elk on adjacent Burnt Mountain.Bill Kane, Skico’s vice president of planning, said he will review the Skico’s proposal to build a gondola to Elk Camp and start running summer activities there with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. If state wildlife officers and the Skico “collectively” identify problems, the Skico will explore ways to mitigate those concerns.”If they can’t be [mitigated] they’ll just be taken out of the plan,” said Kane. “We’ll sit down with [the wildlife officer for the Aspen area] and say ‘What makes sense to you guys?’ And if none of it does, that’s OK.”The Skico submitted its application for changes to Elk Camp to the U.S. Forest Service earlier this spring. The Forest Service is collecting public comments about the plan. It won’t start reviewing the proposal until later this month.Kane said Skico officials hope to meet with state wildlife officials before the feds start their review. If the plan needs to be altered for the sake of elk, it should be altered before the costly analysis begins, he said. The Skico pays for the Forest Service’s analysis.In a guest opinion laying out the Skico’s position, Kane wrote, “We want to make it clear that we as an organization have no interest in conducting any activities which will lead to the demise of the Burnt Mountain elk herd.” (See the editorial in its entirety on page 11.)Much of what the Skico is proposing was approved by the Forest Service in 1994. But the plan caught the attention of two retired state wildlife officials who worked in the Aspen area because it proposed an increase in summer use of the Elk Camp part of Snowmass Ski Area.The Skico wants to develop more biking and hiking trails and hold more events than contemplated in the 1994 approval. Former state wildlife officials Randy Cote and John Seidel claim summer use of Elk Camp could affect everything from elk calving to use of Burnt Mountain as a migration route.Kane said there is a “mistaken impression” that the Skico will move forward with the plan no matter what the environmental costs and “elk be damned.” That’s not the case, he said. He pointed to the Skico’s environmental record to prove his point.”Almost every decision we’ve made since 1994 has tilted toward less not more” on Burnt Mountain, Kane said. He noted that:• The Skico had approval to build a gondola from its Base Village to the top of Burnt Mountain but scaled back the plan. The gondola will go to the bottom of the existing Elk Camp chairlift so trail clearing will be avoided on Burnt Mountain.• The Skico surrendered the right to build a chairlift on the east side of Burnt Mountain when the White River National Forest management plan was amended in 2002. The Skico also lobbied the Forest Service to change management classification of public lands in Owl Creek Valley from alpine skiing to wildlife.• The Skico will adhere to a closure that prohibits any use of Elk Camp before June 21. That closure is intended to prevent interference with elk calving on Burnt Mountain in late May and early June. Before Friday, Skico officials had been noncommittal on whether that closure applied until language was found in the 1994 Forest Service decision that indicated it was mandatory.• The Skico will do what state wildlife officers say needs to be done to enforce restrictions that prevent summer tourists from traveling from Elk Camp to Burnt Mountain. The 1994 Forest Service decision contemplated that the Skico would have workers shepherding people away from Burnt Mountain or pay to have Forest Service rangers perform the work.In addition to taking heat from wildlife experts for too much activity on Burnt Mountain, the Skico has been criticized by town officials and business interests in Snowmass Village for not taking enough. The ski area there saw its skier visits drop for five seasons before posting a gain in 2004-05, according to Kane.Kane acknowledged that it’s legitimate to ask how the Elk Camp plan fits with the Skico’s environmental agenda. The company is widely recognized as a leader in the ski industry on environmental issues. But its position on that lofty perch has spurred more careful scrutiny of its activities.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is