Aspen Times editorial: Pitkin County should approve Pandora’s rezoning, with one caveat |

Aspen Times editorial: Pitkin County should approve Pandora’s rezoning, with one caveat

Aspen Times Editorial Board
A wildflower-covered steep grade looks out over Highway 82 and would be a part of the Pandora expansion on Aspen Mountain on Thursday, August 12, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Pitkin County commissioners will start their review Wednesday of Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposal for a rezoning necessary for the addition of the Pandora’s terrain on Aspen Mountain.

The issues haven’t changed substantially from when the commissioners were deadlocked 2-2 on the rezoning in August 2019.

Skico officials asked for a tabling of the issue rather than a formal vote. Skico is back at the table now.

The company didn’t change the proposal but has tried to harness a lot more public support for this round.

There are good arguments, pro and con, regarding adding Pandora’s on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain. There is no doubt it would add fabulous terrain to Aspen Mountain among the 15 new, “traditional” trails on 82 acres and another 71 acres of tree skiing in the glades to the south.

The upper trails would be similar to the existing Walsh’s run while the lower trails would be more accommodating for intermediate skiers.

The glades provide a variety of terrain — short, steep shots that flow onto benches and more gentle pitches. It would be fun skiing because of constantly changing terrain characteristics.

Skico officials say cleaning out dead conifer trees that make portions of the forest floor impenetrable and cutting down standing dead trees would account for the vast majority of tree removal in the 71 acres of glades.

Members of our staff walked that terrain and confirmed there is plenty of deadfall to remove to benefit skiing and a healthy forest.

The terrain would take pressure off other sections of the mountain and ease the need to do top-to-bottom skiing on Ajax if one wants to check out that side of the ski area.

The new Pandora’s lift would start at about 10,000 feet in elevation so skiers and snowboarders could do laps from mid-mountain up without heading to the bottom to avoid the slow ride on the Couch chairlift.

While we acknowledge it would be great terrain within Skico’s operational boundary — complete with a quad chairlift providing a 5-minute ride as well as avalanche patrol — we understand why a sizable contingent of Aspen skiers and riders is bummed and opposed.

The best skiers have been hiking into this terrain for decades and paying their dues with a long trudge out via Lud’s Lane to get to the Couch.

Skico estimates about 100 skiers and riders already head into that terrain on powder days. Dakine and Power Line are two of the most accessible lines in the current hike-to terrain.

Myriad other lines through the trees see considerable use as well. It’s a special experience for people already skiing the “sidecountry.”

We understand why they would like to see it spared from the increased use generated by a chairlift, grooming and ink on a trail map.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates the “comfortable carrying capacity” of the proposed lift-served terrain at Pandora’s at 620 people per day, which is a significant increase.

However, the Forest Service approved the Pandora’s expansion because of the benefits it will provide to ski area customers.

The Pandora’s terrain has been within Skico’s Aspen Mountain special use permit for decades, although it hasn’t been within the operational boundary.

Part of the reason the terrain is so good is that it is high-elevation and north-northeast facing. It holds snow really well — a quality that Skico covets in a warming world with shorter winters in the Rocky Mountains.

While skiing is the fun part of the debate, zoning will be the focus of the county commissioners. To make the expansion work, Skico needs the county to rezone 132 acres from the current Rural and Remote designation to Recreation Ski.

Rural and Remote Zoning was a masterful maneuver the county started in 1994 to prevent private land on the backside of Aspen Mountain from getting overrun with a Red Mountain-type housing development.

The zoning limits development to modest-sized cabins rather than mansions. It worked so well that it was expanded to areas such as Hunter Creek Valley, Lenado and the Fryingpan Valley.

For many people, the zoning is sacrosanct because it differentiates Pitkin County from other mountain resort areas throughout the West.

Skico officials note that Rural and Remote Zoning was never intended to prevent developed skiing. The land that includes Pandora’s should have never been included in the Rural and Remote Zone, they argue.

Critics contend that approving the rezoning creates a precedent that could trigger additional applications. It also could spur applications for Rural and Remote compliant cabins in the terrain closest to Pandora’s.

To try to calm nerves, Skico has pledged it won’t ask to build anything on the rezoned property except the lower lift terminal, the lift, a bathroom and a patrol hut with associated utilities.

Amenities such as a restaurant or guest cabins are not being sought.

When weighing all factors, we favor the rezoning, with one important caveat: We want to see Skico’s pledge of no amenities strengthened.

Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan, despite his youthfulness, won’t be around forever. And while ownership is stable with the Crown family, Skico could someday end up in the hands of a wealthy oilman or a filmmaking company. (It’s happened before.)

Therefore, rezoning the Pandora’s land from Rural and Remote to Recreation Ski should come with Skico’s promise that no additional amenities will be built in perpetuity.

We recognize that is a hard ask of a business, but this is an exceptional circumstance that requires exceptional expectations.

The first expansion to Aspen Mountain in 36 years will be a welcome addition that will be enjoyed for decades, but let’s make sure we have a solid guarantee it will remain a low-key experience for the next generations.

The Aspen Times editorial board is comprised of publisher Samantha Johnston, editor David Krause, managing editor Rick Carroll, reporters Scott Condon and Carolyn Sackariason and copy editor Sean Beckwith.

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