Summit County A focus on forest health and beetle-killed trees will play a big part in shaping future plans for new trails at local ski areas.
"Hazard trees" near trails and chairlifts are a major concern, said Roger Poirer, winter sports program coordinator for the White River National Forest.
Breckenridge Ski Area is seeking authorization to develop new terrain within its permitted boundary on Peak 6, and Keystone is in the process of finalizing a master plan that also envisions new lifts and trails.
Both proposals need to be viewed in the context of significant changes in the forest, Poirer said.
Mountain pine beetles are advancing into the higher elevations and spreading rapidly, especially on the front side of Keystone Mountain. The resorts and the Forest Service must study how those changes will affect the recreation experience at the ski areas, he said.
"We could, by default, have wider trails. In some cases, it could enhance the skier experience. ... And we could have some conflicts," Poirer said.
The conflicts could come when the desire for ski terrain intersects with the need to protect areas where new trees are starting to grow.
"What do we want to be green? Where can we enhance the skier experience?" Poirer asked.
The answer may lie in developing forward-looking vegetation management plans.
"We need to try and stay ahead of this and keep up from the timber standpoint," Poirer said, explaining that the agency wants to partner with the resorts to look at forest management 10 to 15 years out.
The advance of the pine beetles definitely will affect ski area plans, Dillon District Ranger Jan Cutts said. As a result, the agency will try to integrate forest management with ski area plans.
"We need to blend them enough to use what nature is bringing us, especially as the ski areas talk about what new terrain they might want," Cutts said.
Keystone recently submitted a draft vegetation management plan as a first step in getting approval for the ski area master plan. The resort's new master plan could be finalized this summer, pending review of the vegetation management plan, Poirer said, adding that the agency asked Keystone to look at beetle kill issues.
"We're always hearing people ask: 'What are you going to do about the pine beetle?'" Keystone vice president and chief operating officer Pat Campbell said during a meeting with Keystone homeowners late last year. "We literally counted every tree on the mountain last summer."
The goal is not only to determine what to do with beetle-killed trees but how to plan for reforestation and encourage regrowth. That includes trying to figure out how to manage north-facing slopes, where stands of mature spruce trees are threatened by a new insect invasion, Campbell said.
As described by resort officials in October, the new master plan could include:
- A new lift from the Ski Tip area up the east side of the mountain
- New lifts in Bergman Bowl and Independence Bowl replacing current cat-skiing operations
- A replacement of the Wayback chair
- New trails on the front side, as well as on North Peak and the Outback
Keystone last updated its master plan with the U.S. Forest Service in the mid-1980s, so the resort now is ready to lay out conceptual lay plans for new lifts and trails, said Doug Lovell, director of mountain operations during a meeting with Keystone homeowners.
A plan to add lift-served skiing on Peak 6, on national forest land under permit to the resort, has been percolating for a couple of years. The Forest Service started a formal environmental study more than a year ago.
The resort wants to add a new lift and several hundred acres of terrain to meet what it says is a demand for more intermediate trails.
Along with looking at forest health issues, the Forest Service is studying lynx habitat in the area.
At the same time, a collaborative task force has been meeting to address social issues associated with the Peak 6 proposal, including parking and affordable housing, along with other less-tangible quality-of-life issues.