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Snowmass wants wildlife data on snowmobile plan

Brent Gardner-Smith

The Snowmass Village Town Council put the Aspen Skiing Company’s plans to start evening snowmobile tours at Snowmass Ski Area in neutral Monday night.

The council tabled until Dec. 18 the Skico’s request to approve a temporary use permit to allow 12 snowmobiles a night to be led up to the top of Elk Camp, back down and then across the ski area between 6 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. this winter.

Council member Jack Hatfield, a Pitkin County commissioner-elect, called for the council to delay action until the Skico gets approval from the U.S. Forest Service. In turn, the Forest Service is waiting for an opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on what impact, if any, the snowmobile tours might have on the Canada lynx.

Hatfield, who called the proposed snowmobile program a “tour de disturbance,” said the council needed more information on potential impacts to wildlife before it makes a decision.

“I hope it does go through an EA,” he said, referring to a possible Forest Service environmental assessment of the proposal.

After the meeting, Ray Spencer, the snow ranger for the Aspen Ranger District, said that District Ranger Jim Upchurch would be making the call on what level of review would be required for Forest Service approval. It could be as simple as the agency approving the new activity as part of the ski area’s winter operating plan.

But before Upchurch makes that call, the proposal has to go through a lynx screening process at the Fish and Wildlife Service. Federal regulations now require any new activity on Forest Service land to be weighed against how it might affect current or potential lynx habitat. That process is expected to take 130 days, which could make the Skico’s request for the new tours moot until next ski season.

The Skico commissioned its own study of the potential wildlife impacts. A “biological assessment” and “biological evaluation” by Habitat Concepts of Walden, Colo., found no significant impact on wildlife species within the ski area.

Two newly-elected Snowmass Town Council members, Arnie Mordkin and Dick Virtue, were supportive of the concept, and Mordkin advocated approving the Skico’s request contingent upon Forest Service approval. Bob Purvis, who was appointed last night to the council to fill Hatfield’s soon-to-be vacant seat, suggested the issue be tabled until at least Dec. 18, when more information might be available.

Snowmass Village Mayor T. Michael Manchester said he had concerns about noise from the snowmobiles, as well as the wildlife impacts.

“I have mixed feelings,” he said. “I’m a little concerned about the neighbors.”

George Hart of Snowmass Village wrote a letter to the council opposing the idea, saying that as an occasional nighttime user of the ski area, he appreciated being able to find peace and quiet there. Hatfield said he heard from numerous citizens concerned about the impacts from the machines, and the Forest Service received six calls last week against the plan.

The tours would leave at 6 p.m. from the bottom of Fanny Hill and head up to Elk Camp via Funnel and the Funnel Bypass. At the base of the Elk Camp lift, the drivers would get a chance to “do some loops,” according to the Skico’s operations plan. Then, the tour would head up to the Elk Camp warming hut, which doubles as a wildlife center, for hot soup and hot drinks, and “the guides will give an informational talk on the area’s wildlife and surrounding area.”

Then the group would head down Bull Run, go up Turkey Trot, drive past Gordon’s High Alpine restaurant, down Green Cabin, across the Trestle over to Lunchline, and down Velvet Falls to Fanny Hill. The tours, if eventually approved by local and federal authorities, would end at 8:30 or 8:45 p.m..


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