S’mobiles up S’mass? | AspenTimes.com

S’mobiles up S’mass?

Jeremy Heiman

The Snowmass Village Town Council is expected to approve a proposal for guided evening snowmobile tours on Snowmass Ski Area.

But the Aspen Skiing Company proposal must also be approved by the U.S. Forest Service, which owns much of the land the tours would traverse. The time required for study and approval by the Forest Service may delay the start of the tours until at least next winter.

The Skico wants to operate one tour per evening, perhaps two to three evenings a week, with two guides and 12 guests driving snowmobiles. The tours would begin at 5 p.m. at Fanny Hill with instructions on how to use the machines, and travel uphill would start about 5:30.

The snowmobilers would stop for refreshments and an instructional talk on wildlife at the wildlife center near the top of the Elk Camp lift and return to Fanny Hill by 8 p.m.

The proposed route would take the group up the ski run Funnel Bypass. Groups would return to the base via Bull Run, Turkey Trot, Green Cabin, Trestle, Lunch Line and Velvet Falls.

Snowmass Mountain Manager Doug MacKenzie, who has taken the lead on the project, wasn’t available for comment yesterday. But Auden Schendler, the company’s environmental affairs director, said he had been consulted on environmental aspects of the proposal.

Schendler said the rationale for the project was to help the company diversify without growing. With skier numbers leveling off industry-wide, the Skico is looking for ways to make the most of opportunities within the business.

“Every ski area is saying, `Look, we’re trying to make money selling ski tickets, and it’s not working very well,'” Schendler said. “All businesses are saying, `How can we diversify to bring in more revenue?'”

The Skico plans to try out two models of snowmobiles which produce significantly less pollution than the conventional, two-stroke-engine machines. Though these are not on the market yet, the Skico hopes to get them for its everyday work on the ski areas, and perhaps for tours as well, Schendler said.

Ray Spencer, Aspen snow ranger for the Forest Service, said the proposal must first be evaluated by a Forest Service wildlife biologist. Then it must be screened for any potential effects on lynx habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Because of the biological evaluations, it will be some time before a decision is rendered, Spencer said. A final Forest Service decision must be issued by District Ranger Jim Upchurch.

“They proposed it for this year, but we’ve already notified them that that’s not likely,” Spencer said. He noted that Vail offers snowmobile trips in the evenings, but that will not affect a Forest Service decision on the Snowmass proposal.

The Snowmass Village Town Council will vote on the proposal after a public hearing Monday. The town’s Planning Commission has recommended approval.

Dean Stahman, planner for the town of Snowmass Village, said the town doesn’t anticipate much in the way of noise complaints from the tours. The proposed route doesn’t pass many residences, and groups would leave residential areas early in the evening. The machines don’t make much noise when they come downhill, he said.

Stahman said the Skico has had a biological assessment done by an independent consulting company, which produced a favorable recommendation.

“They felt it wouldn’t have any significant impacts,” Stahman said.

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