Social issues delay Breckenridge expansion |

Social issues delay Breckenridge expansion

Bob Berwyn
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. ” The U.S. Forest Service and Breckenridge Ski Resort will slow down their work on a proposal to develop 450 acres on Peak 6 for new ski terrain after receiving criticism of the project.

More than a 100 people who filed public comments expressed serious concerns and some level of opposition to the project, based on potential impacts to quality of life and issues like traffic, parking, housing and loss of wildlife habitat.

“Once you put something like that in, you can’t take it out,” wrote Janet Blum, one of the critics. “We have had enough with all of the expansion.”

Others supported the expansion.

“Breckenridge … has gotten more crowded each year that we have lived here, and this proposal would be a meaningful extension of the area to the north,” wrote Tom and Peggy Briggs.

As a result of the conflicted public response, the agency has decided to delay the release of a draft environmental study by six months, into early winter.

“It’s not on hold, but we’re not rushing,” said Roger Poirer, winter-sports manager for the White River National Forest.

“We heard loud and clear the social concerns,” he continued. “It’s going to be hard to move forward without addressing them first. Maybe the Forest Service and the resort didn’t do enough preparation to look at social concerns.”

The resort and Forest Service will team up with local towns and counties to address those issues through what Breckenridge chief operation officer Lucy Kay called an “unprecedented” community-wide task force.

Part of the new group’s mission will be to determine if the ski-area plan will have a direct short-term effect on local communities.

“The social concerns will be there, with or without Peak 6,” Kay said.

Resort executives and Forest Service rangers last year outlined the Peak 6 plan during several Breckenridge Town Council meetings.

The new terrain will help spread out skiers and snowboarders on busy days, said Rick Sramek, vice president of mountain operations.

A single lift would serve 285 acres above treeline and 67 acres on six trails below treeline. The ski area also plans to build a ski-patrol and warming hut and a base-area restaurant.

The resort has led the U.S. in skier visits in recent seasons and accommodates more visitors per acre than other surrounding ski areas, including Copper and Vail, according to the Forest Service.

About 40 public comments expressed support for the expansion, citing the need for more intermediate terrain.

Proponents pointed out the ski area’s track record of public-lands stewardship and said the agency and resort would do a good job of using the national forest to meet a steady and growing demand for recreation.

Other people expressed conditional support, providing Breckenridge and the Forest Service address the issues in a meaningful way.

“My hope is they address all the issues. We already see certain days of the year when we max out our infrastucture,” said Breckenridge Mayor John Warner.

The strain on the “comfortable carrying capacity” at the resort and across the community leads to at least a subjective erosion or degradation of the quality of life, Warner said.

Officially, the Forest Service doesn’t count comments as pro or con votes, Poirer said.

The scoping process is to identify specific issues for the required environmental study, but the agency does pay attention to the numbers at some level ” especially where the comments are coming from.

The comments will help Forest Supervisor Maribeth Gustafson get a sense of where the community stands on a project before she makes the final decision, Poirer said.

Officials at Colorado Wild, an environmental group that scrutinizes ski-resort expansions, said the influx of comments shows there is a high level of community interest in looking at the cumulative, community wide effects of the resort development plan.

“The first thing I want to do is get people in Summit County to stay engaged,” said Hunter Sykes, who heads the group’s ski-area program.

Even though public comments don’t count as votes, building a critical mass of opposition can turn the issue into a political question, Sykes said.

“If you can get enough people to make enough noise, federal elected officials start to pay attention,” said Sykes.

The nonprofit environmental group opposes the Peak 6 project on the same grounds that are reflected in many of the comment letters: Concerns about natural-resource impacts and social impacts to the community.

Along with citizens, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also weighed in.

The Peak 6 terrain could create additional barriers for lynx trying to move across the ski resort, federal biologists said.

“The additional terrain development may result in abandonment of the existing habitat that remains along the east side of the Tenmile Range between the southern boundary of (Breckenridge Ski Resort) and the town of Frisco,” according to a comment letter from the federal wildlife agency.

The EPA called on the Forest Service to balance recreational needs with impacts to natural resources, including roadless areas, old growth spruce and fir forests, wildlife habitat and water quality.

Poirer acknowledged the concerns about effects on lynx habitat, and said the Forest Service already has consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service to take a closer look at the potential impacts.

“We just don’t know. Is it going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? Or is it already non-functional habitat,” Poirer said. “We need more baseline information.”

Under contract with the resort, wildlife biologist Rick Thompson has been studying wildlife and other natural-resource issues in the Peak 6 area for several years.

Careful design of the project, along with operational guidelines and mitigation, can minimize and offset impacts to natural resources, Thompson said in an interview last year.