Mike Kaplan: Guest Opinion | AspenTimes.com

Mike Kaplan: Guest Opinion

As we wrap up another great winter, we are looking ahead toward the summer season. As many of you may have heard or read, we are moving the hub of summer operations on Snowmass to Elk Camp, as per our long-standing plans and our agreement with the town of Snowmass Village.

This plan has been in motion since 1994 and we have worked extensively with the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the local community to ensure that it was done right. Our summer operations at Snowmass are intended to create a more viable year-round community, which will ultimately improve the overall year-round guest experience.

In recent weeks, an editorial in The Aspen Times quoted an employee of the Division of Wildlife who commented on the declining numbers of elk in the “Avalanche Creek Herd.” We believe those comments referenced the range for this herd as being the 250,000-acre DOW Game Management Unit (GMU) 43, south of Highway 82 from Maroon Creek to Glenwood Springs.

The habitat in the Burnt Mountain area of Snowmass comprises approximately 1 percent of GMU 43, but the editorial implied that Aspen Skiing Company’s planned summer activities at Elk Camp would negatively impact the elk population of the total Avalanche Creek Herd.

We feel the DOW employee’s comments also failed to reference the exhaustive wildlife studies and habitat analysis completed as part of the 1994 Snowmass Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and several subsequent Environmental Assessment (EA) studies, which ultimately approved the Snowmass Mountain Master Plan and the associated summer activities at Elk Camp.

As part of these extensive studies and approvals, many mitigation measures, conditions and modifications were required of the summer activities proposal at Elk Camp by the USFS and DOW wildlife biologists. Aspen Skiing Company will comply with all the conditions identified in these approvals to ensure that the viability of the wildlife habitat of Burnt Mountain is not impacted.

While the facts regarding the Avalanche Creek elk herd expressed by the DOW employee are concerning, we feel that the editorial unfairly implied that activities at the Snowmass Ski Area are the primary cause of the elk population decline in GMU 43. Recent newspaper coverage of an April 6 Pitkin County meeting with the DOW clarified some of these misperceptions, citing that the continued loss of big game “winter range” and other unregulated human impacts are the critical factors to the reduction of the valley’s elk productivity and population.

The following additional facts regarding the Burnt Mountain elk herd, and its habitat, should also be acknowledged:

• The calving area is very specifically identified by wildlife biologists as Kelly Park on lower Burnt Mountain. The May 15 to June 20 area closure for this production area has been in place for 16 years and nothing will change as a result of the Elk Camp Summer Operation. Kelly Park is 1.5 miles away from the closest point of the Elk Camp Gondola.

• Wildlife biologists have confirmed that by June 20, calving season is over and the cows and calves migrate up Burnt Mountain and into their summer range in the Wilderness Area of West Willow Basin. Therefore, summer operations in the upper Elk Camp area will not begin until June 20 and, even then, the areas on Burnt Mountain above Government Trail and east of Bull Run will be closed to anyone using lifts to reach this elevation. There will also be a 100-foot buffer zone, and area closure, between the ski area and the Wilderness Area. These restrictions will be STRICTLY ENFORCED and public education (signs, brochures and personnel) about sensitive habitat will accompany operations.

• All Elk Camp summer trails and activities will be directed AWAY from Burnt Mountain as required by the in-depth NEPA Reviews of the 1994 EIS and the 2006 EA. To reiterate, the findings of these reviews indicate no significant impact to the overall health, productivity and population of the approximately 180-220 animals that comprise this segment of the herd.

• The DOW and USFS will annually assess, in conjunction with ASC, the effectiveness of the area’s mitigation measures.

We have considered carefully our decision to begin summer operations at Elk Camp and if we felt that our activities in the Elk Camp area would negatively impact the Avalanche Creek Herd, we would not have moved forward with this plan. We are more committed than ever to our environmental principles and to being good stewards of our pristine mountain environment.

Thanks again to all for a great season and we look forward to seeing you on the mountain again soon.

Mike Kaplan is president and CEO of the Aspen Skiing Co.

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