Aspen terrain expansion hits bump

Required study halts resort's attempt to enlarge skiable area

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— The Aspen Skiing Co. has dropped a proposal to add expert terrain on Aspen Mountain after the U.S. Forest Service determined last week that an environmental study was required.

The ski company wanted to thin trees on national forest in an area known as Dakine Bowl, to the skier's right of Walsh's trail on the eastern side of Aspen Mountain. The work would have added about 25 acres of expert terrain south of the Walsh's boundary.

Ski areas that use public lands have the right to remove dead or dying trees that present a health and safety risk. But Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Irene Davidson determined that the amount of trees the ski company wanted to remove in Dakine Bowl required environmental review.

"Once we learned the number of trees, it was obvious we needed to" apply the National Environmental Policy Act, Davidson said. "It was in the range of 500 trees. If it was 100, we may have thought differently."

Davidson said she consulted last week with Mary Morgan, acting supervisor of the White River National Forest, and recommended the environmental review be required. Ski company officials were somewhat surprised when informed about the decision Monday, company spokesman Jeff Hanle said.

"Yeah, we had been given the impression that we had a green light to get going, so we were ready to get going," Hanle said.

The ski company had marked the hundreds of trees that it intended to cut down. A crew was going to start this month while there was still snow on the ground, to minimize disturbance to the soil.

"We just put it on hold," Hanle said.

Davidson said Monday that she was unaware the company decided not to go ahead with the project.

Hanle said ski company officials were told that an environmental study was required, but they weren't told that it was specifically because of the number of trees the ski company wanted to remove.

The ski company decided it wasn't worth investing an unknown amount of money in an environmental study, because a broader environmental analysis would be required down the road when the ski company applies to add a greater amount of terrain farther south of Dakine Bowl, Hanle said. That expert terrain includes areas known as Pandora's and Powerline. The ski company has no specific timeline for adding that greater amount of terrain, he said.

The entire area that includes Dakine Bowl, Pandora's and Powerline is within the ski area boundary, but it isn't actively managed by the ski company as part of Aspen Mountain. The ski patrol, for example, doesn't sweep the area as part of its regular duties.

So, adding that terrain isn't an expansion in the sense of going into areas not contemplated for skiing. Nevertheless, adding that terrain requires Forest Service approval.

A similar type of request by the ski company to add terrain on Burnt Mountain at Snowmass led to litigation. An environmental group filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service after the agency approved the ski company's proposal for a new trail and egress route without requiring an environmental study.

It is unknown whether that challenge influenced the Forest Service's requirement for an environmental study of the Dakine Bowl proposal.

Davidson said the scope of environmental study required for Dakine Bowl hadn't been determined by the Forest Service. At a minimum, the agency would have held a 30-day scoping period that would include collecting public comment. The agency might have issued what is known as a "categorical exclusion" for the project, essentially determining there were no environmental effects. It's possible a more detailed environmental assessment could have been required - costing the ski company more time and money.

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