Skico’s Burnt Mountain plan kills lift for traverse
Aspen Skiing Co. officials say they don’t understand why some critics feel their plan to use more of Burnt Mountain tarnishes their environmentally friendly reputation.The Skico is awaiting a decision from the U.S. Forest Service that would allow it to use about 500 more acres of backcountry-style terrain on Snowmass Ski Area’s east flank.Some critics don’t want their private backcountry ski stash disturbed. Others say the land should be left alone for the sake of wildlife.”This is very surprising to us that there would be a strong environmental reaction,” said Bill Kane, Skico vice president of planning and development. “We really felt we were doing the best job for skiers and the environment.”Kane notes that the Skico has surrendered rights to build what is referred to as the East Burnt Mountain chairlift. The company felt that construction of that lift would create too much environmental damage.As an alternative, the Skico wants to widen and clear an existing traverse that is currently used by backcountry skiers. Improving that traverse would allow skiers and riders to use more of Burnt Mountain to the east of the Long Shot trail.Burnt Mountain doesn’t have any chairlifts. Skiers and riders undertake a short hike from the Elk Camp part of Snowmass to get to the Long Shot trail.The Forest Service ruled in 1994 that the Skico could build the east and west Burnt Mountain chairlifts as well as a surface lift from Elk Camp.Two years ago the Skico voluntarily surrendered land from its ski area permit boundary with the U.S. Forest Service that essentially makes the East Burnt Mountain chairlift impractical, Kane said. No formal documentation has been filed with the Forest Service saying that lift is no longer wanted, but Kane said that could easily be fixed.”We could waive our rights to the lift and sign a document,” he said.The Skico is awaiting a decision from Aspen District Ranger Bill Westbrook that allows the Burnt Mountain work. The decision is largely just a formality because the work was approved by a 1994 Burnt Mountain Environmental Impact Statement.But the Forest Service received numerous comments from the public earlier this year complaining about the Skico’s plan to implement part of its Burnt Mountain plan.Kane suspects some of the criticism is from people unaware that the Burnt Mountain plan was approved, after lengthy debate, 11 years ago and that the Skico has since surrendered a chairlift. Some critics “came into the process late,” he said. He likened it to a movie watcher seeing “Kill Bill Vol. 2” without seeing the first “Kill Bill” flick.One watchdog that’s been around for the entire Burnt Mountain debate is the Wilderness Workshop. Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker said he was aware the Skico has waived its right to the East Burnt Mountain lift.”I’m the first one to give them credit,” Shoemaker said. “They’re light years ahead of the rest of the ski industry.”While Wilderness Workshop isn’t opposing the Skico’s plan to widen the traverse and use more of Burnt Mountain for a quasi-backcountry experience, Shoemaker wants the company to waive rights to the West Burnt Mountain lift as well.That chairlift is proposed – without a definitive timetable – along the alignment of the Long Shot trail. Building that lift would fragment wildlife habitat and ruin the backcountry quality of the skiing terrain, Shoemaker said.”I frankly think putting a lift in there will destroy the very quality they’re trying to preserve,” he said.Kane said the West Burnt Mountain lift is a low priority for the Skico. It will undertake numerous other lift upgrades first. If those upgrades spur increases in skier visits, the West Burnt Mountain lift might be justified, he said. If not, it will likely remain hiker-accessed skiing for a long time.Skico Environmental Director Auden Schendler said the Skico tries to conduct business in an environmentally friendly way, but it still has to do business.”Aspen Skiing Company is developing a decent environmental reputation, and as a result, people seem to forget we’re not an environmental group or a land trust, we’re a for profit business,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Our work has significant environmental impacts. Our mission is to undertake that work in the least damaging way possible.”Schendler said he’s willing to bet that no similar project in the ski industry has been as thoroughly discussed and examined as the Burnt Mountain project.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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