New heights: Steamboat Resort would have North America’s longest gondola, be 2nd largest Colorado ski resort after proposed projects
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Steamboat Resort could see some major changes in the coming years following preliminary approval from the U.S. Forest Service.
In an announcement on Thursday, the resort described plans to build what would be the longest eight-person gondola in North America, which it is calling the Wild Blue Gondola. Other major developments could include a 650-acre expansion and a new restaurant at the top of the Sunshine and Sundown chairlifts. The terrain expansion would make the ski area the second largest resort in Colorado. This marks an increase of a previous proposed expansion that would have made it the third largest resort in the state. It currently is ranked fifth based on acreage.
“These new projects complement those that have long been at the top of Steamboat’s wish list, and now we are taking steps to obtain the necessary analysis, reviews and approval to be ready to move forward when the time is right,” Rob Perlman, president and chief operating officer of Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., said in the announcement.
The 3.16-mile-long Wild Blue Gondola, as currently planned, would start from the base area and end at the summit of Sunshine Peak, where the Sunshine and Sundown chairlifts currently reach, according to Loryn Duke, director of communications for Ski Corp.
It would have a mid-station at the Bashor bowl near the Mavericks terrain park. As Duke explained, that area offers more gradual grades that would make it ideal for a new ski and riding school.
If construction goes forward, the resort would remove the Priest Creek lift and replace Sundown Express with a “more efficient and higher capacity chairlift,” according to the announcement about the projects.
The gondola also would help shuttle more people up the mountain from the base area, helping to mitigate long lines on busy days. As planned, the resort could get 10,000 people per hour up the mountain from the base area, as opposed to the current rate of 6,000 people per hour.
“It is really going to alleviate that congestion in the base area,” Duke said.
The terrain expansion, the first in more than 20 years, would bring the Pioneer Ridge and Fish Creek Canyon areas within resort boundaries. The resort had planned to start work on the Pioneer Ridge project prior to this latest announcement, but its owner, Alterra Mountain Co., postponed it amid the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both Pioneer Ridge and the Fish Creek Canyon have been popular areas for backcountry skiing, Duke said. By bringing them into the resort boundary, it will allow for better maintenance and Steamboat Ski Patrol to more effectively respond to emergencies. Currently, Routt County Search and Rescue volunteers often have to respond if a skier or rider gets lost or stranded in those areas.
There will be a virtual meeting to discuss the projects from 4 to 6 p.m. July 17. People can attend by visiting usfs.adobeconnect.com/steamboat/conference. They also can call 888-844-9904 and, when prompted, enter 5083570# to connect to the meeting.
People can submit written comments before the meeting by mailing them to the following address: Russell Bacon, Forest Supervisor c/o Erica Dickerman, Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland, 2468 Jackson Street, Laramie, WY 82070. They also can post comments online at cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=58336. People have 30 days as of Thursday to submit written and online comments.
Concern for wildlife
A review of the projects listed several potential negative consequences, particularly to raptor habitat in the area. Under the of the Forest Service’s Threatened, Endangered, Sensitive Species and Wildlife standards, the agency is committed to protecting active and inactive raptor nest areas.
Under these standards, the Forest Service mandates a no-disturbance buffer around nests to protect raptors until after they have finished raising their young, generally March through July. Construction of the Wild Blue Gondola and a bridge in the Fish Creek expansion area would come within a quarter-mile of known nests that have been home to red-tail and Cooper’s hawks, according to the Forest Service.
“A no-disturbance buffer protects active nests till after raptors have fledged, which is incompatible with the construction timing necessary to implement the proposed action,” the agency stated in a review of the projects.
Approval of construction would therefore require an amendment to the Forest Service standards, according to the project review. The amendment would expire after construction is complete, and it would not apply to any future projects unless there are additional amendments.
There are a handful of known nests in the area, according to Erica Dickerman, a mountain sports ranger with the Forest Service, but it is impossible to know which will be occupied until they nest in the spring.
Further environmental analysis will continue in the coming weeks and months, Dickerman said, with a draft expected by late fall. The public will have an opportunity to object or appeal the draft. A finalized environmental assessment is scheduled for completion by March 2021.
Overall, Dickerman sees the proposed development as a way to strike a balance between providing popular recreation opportunities and preserving natural resources. As she explained, the resort represents one of the most highly trafficked areas in the Routt National Forest, and by concentrating development there, it helps to preserve more remote places elsewhere.