Aspen Skiing Co. rallied troops this time around for Pandora’s ski expansion plan
Foes decry the well-greased lobbying campaign for the project
When Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposal to expand into the Pandora’s terrain of Aspen Mountain was reviewed by the Pitkin County commissioners in 2019, it was a relatively low-key affair that attracted the interest of some die-hard skiers and resort boosters on one side and a handful of foes on the other.
It has been a different story this time around during a lengthy review process by the commissioners. Public interest soared and waves of Skico’s allies have spoken up in public hearings, letters to the newspapers and by signing a petition of support. More foes have also spoken up but they have been vastly overshadowed by the supporters.
The Pandora’s plan to add 153 acres of ski terrain the upper east side of Aspen Mountain goes to the county commissioners for a formal vote Wednesday. In a straw poll Oct. 27, the majority of commissioners indicated they would support Skico’s request.
Some Pandora’s opponents indicated they felt overwhelmed by the well-greased, pro-Pandora’s effort.
“I know you’ve been leaned on heavily by Skico, as well as the so-called ‘Friends of Pandora (sic),’” Marcella Larsen, one of the biggest critics of the ski area expansion plan, wrote in a Nov. 10 letter to the commissioners. “I regret I didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with this and try to organize folks in a grassroots effort, but people did show up to the early meetings and perhaps felt disheartened thereafter.”
But the project’s supporters said they simply mounted an awareness campaign that educated people and inspired many of them to speak in favor of the project.
A private resident, Bruce Etkin of Aspen, hired the firm of longtime local public relations executive Jeanette Darnauer to run the Friends of Pandora’s campaign. Darnauer said Tuesday her team’s efforts were independent of Skico but coordinated with the company.
“They said they wanted to make sure it was citizen driven, not Skico driven,” Darnauer said. It had to be coordinated, she said, “because they had the information.”
Friends of Pandora’s held public meetings, formed a citizens advisory committee with clout and contacted influential locals for one-on-one discussions to see if they would publicly support the project. About 1,600 people signed the online petition in support of the expansion plan.
John Doyle, an Aspen City councilman who has opposed Pandora’s as an individual, suggested in a Nov. 10 letter to the commissioners that the Lift One Corridor Plan election in in Aspen in March 2019 showed that there is a “silent majority” of local residents who work directly or indirectly for Skico and will not speak out on any Skico issue.”
Despite a vast campaign by Skico and partners in two hotels to support the corridor plan, the proposal won by only 26 votes. The outcome was 1,555 votes in favor and 1,529 against, a margin of 50.4% to 49.6%.
Doyle wrote in his letter that PR teams hired for effort such as Lift One Corridor Plan and Pandora’s have the ability to tip the scales of debate by setting up websites, gathering signatures, advertising on social media and using handouts of food and drinks to garner attention.
“The opposition work on their own time; they get involved because they care,” Doyle said.
Darnauer said she feels the government review process gives foes of a project just as much of an opportunity as supporters. There are a lot of ways to get educated on issues and a lot of tools to use to participate, she said. Large numbers of people have spoken in favor of Pandora’s because they want to see the new terrain added, not because they are being lobbied, she said.
It is clear that Skico’s strategy coming into the renewed review of Pandora’s was to harness more public support. The first review ended with a 2-2 stalemate without a formal vote by the county commissioners on Aug. 28, 2019.
Skico returned to the county with what was initially the same proposal on Aug. 25, 2021. Skico representatives said at an Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors meeting earlier that month they hoped to get broader and more enthusiastic support the second time around.
“From the Ski Company’s perspective, we believe that support for this is really quite broad in the community, albeit perhaps somewhat latent or quiet,” said David Corbin, then Skico’s senior vice president for planning and development.
Skico ended up altering its Pandora’s proposal a few times in this latest review to try to earn county support. The commissioners are scheduled to vote on a site plan review and a rezoning necessary for the expansion. The meeting starts at noon although there are several items scheduled before Pandora’s.
Need a refresher on the Pandora’s plan? Here is a FAQ originally run by The Aspen Times on Aug. 20.
What’s the proposal?
Aspen Skiing Co. wants to add about 153 acres of ski terrain on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain to its operational boundary. That terrain is already in its permit with the U.S. Forest Service, but it isn’t utilized for lift-served or patrolled skiing.
Didn’t the Forest Service already approve Pandora’s?
Yes. The White River National Forest granted final approval in March 2019. However, it requires review by both the Forest Service and Pitkin County because there is national forest land as well as private land involved. The terrain addition requires a rezoning. Pitkin County will start to consider the rezoning request on Aug. 25.
What’s in it for skiers and riders?
The Pandora’s terrain provides a mix of intermediate and expert terrain. Much of the upper terrain will be expert, as will glades to the south. Aspen Mountain doesn’t currently offer a lot of tree skiing of this type.
Much of the lower terrain will be intermediate. The expansion will allow extensions of existing terrain on the Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi trails.
In addition, the new quad chairlift will allow lap skiing on the Pandora’s pod and take pressure off the Ajax Express and surrounding terrain. The lift ride will be less than 5 minutes, sparing customers from a ride on the “Couch” chair.
The Pandora’s terrain is also on north and northeast aspects and at high elevation so it holds the snow well. Aspen Skiing Co. contends that is a key factor in adapting to climate change.
What are the issues?
Skiers have been accessing the Pandora’s terrain for decades. They don’t want to lose something they have enjoyed for years. Installing a chairlift and groomed trails will invite a lot more skiers and riders into the area.
Other observers wonder why it is so important to add terrain when Aspen Snowmass already offers 5,527 acres across its four ski areas.
While Colorado Parks and Wildlife said the Pandora’s terrain isn’t an elk calving area, nearby lands are. In addition, North Star Nature Preserve is on the valley floor, well below Pandora’s. Some environmentalists are concerned that increased use with lift-served skiing will have an indirect impact wildlife.
The issue that the county will be primarily concerned with is rezoning land from Rural and Remote to Ski-Recreation. Rural and Remote Zoning was created in 1994 to prevent the proliferation of large home construction in sensitive, high-altitude lands such as the backside of Aspen Mountain. Some people see rezoning as setting a bad precedent. Aspen Skiing Co. will agree to limit the type of development in the rezoned lands. They only want ski trails, the lift and a ski patrol shack. They will not request other uses allowed in the Ski-Rec Zone such as restaurants and cabins, according to David Corbin, Skico senior vice president of planning and development.
What’s Skico’s timetable?
If Pitkin County approves the rezoning, Skico plans to clear timber for traditional ski trails and thin timber for tree skiing in summer 2022. The lift would be installed in summer 2023, so lift-served skiing would be offered starting in 2023-24, according to Corbin.