Aspen Skiing Co.’s logging of Pandora’s terrain reopens debate on off-site impact

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is concerned about effects on nearby elk calving ground; Forest Service has different view

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Mak Keeling, senior project manager for Aspen Skiing Co., takes Pitkin County commissioners, staff and members of the public on a tour of a portion of the land that would be rezoned to make way for the Pandora’s expansion of Aspen Mountain ski area, on Sept. 1, 2021.
Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

Aspen Skiing Co.’s logging this spring on the Pandora’s section of Aspen Mountain has revived a confusing situation where expert agencies are expressing conflicting views of the work’s potential impacts on elk.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife contends the logging could interfere with elk calving outside of Pandora’s on adjacent terrain. The state agency wants logging delayed until July.

The U.S. Forest Service approved the Pandora’s project without timing restrictions on logging. It noted in its 2018 decision that there is no evidence of elk calving habitat in Pandora’s terrain. The Forest Service doesn’t have the same level of concern as CPW about logging impacts on off-site calving grounds.

The Forest Service is the decision-making agency. CPW is merely an advising agency.

“We don’t have any teeth in this,” Kurtis Tesch, CPW area wildlife manager, said Thursday. “We just make a recommendation.”

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Skico crews started logging Pandora’s on May 2. A helicopter was used for about 10 hours over two days recently to haul felled logs to a storage area within Pandora’s boundary.

Skico officials were aware of CPW’s concerns but took all steps required by the Forest Service, including surveys for elk and other wildlife before starting, said Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications.

“We’re relying on the advice and approvals given to us by those who are experts in the field,” Hanle said.

To muddle the situation further, Pitkin County also held a regulatory role and came up with a different position than the Forest Service and CPW. Skico needed land on Aspen Mountain rezoned to make Pandora’s expansion work. The county commissioners granted that rezoning with the condition that no logging occur on the rezoned lands until after June 21. The county didn’t prohibit logging on Pandora’s lands that already have the necessary zoning.

The Forest Service and Pitkin County approved Skico’s plan to add about 150 acres of skiable terrain and a high-speed detachable quad chairlift in Pandora’s.

Aaron Smith fells a tree as part of Aspen Skiing Co.’s work on the Pandora’s terrain expansion and lift addition project.
Aspen Skiing Co./courtesy photo

Skico needs all the time it can get in two short construction seasons at high elevation to complete the project, Hanle said. This spring, Skico logged terrain where a work road will be constructed to install the lift. Logging also occurred on the lower two-thirds of the lift line. The lift won’t be installed until next summer.

The road construction will go into fall, Skico senior project manager Mak Keeling said earlier this week. The lift alignment needed to be logged so a survey and lift profile can be completed. The manufacturer requires the profile before it starts building the lift.

CPW’s position

CPW consistently urged Pitkin County and the U.S. Forest Service during the extensive review processes for Pandora’s to prohibit construction activities during elk calving.

In a June 4, 2018, letter to the Forest Service, CPW regional manager J.T. Romatzke wrote that Pandora’s is immediately adjacent to elk production areas.

“CPW recommends that all construction occur outside the dates of May 1 to July 15,” Romatzke wrote in comments submitted for the Forest Service’s environmental assessment. “Additionally, future use of this area should be prohibited except for winter skiing. Providing solitude for wildlife during reproduction periods and throughout the summer is important.”

Skico has agreed not to use the Pandora’s terrain for summer activities on Aspen Mountain.

CPW’s Tesch confirmed the agency’s stance when asked last week for an opinion on spring logging by Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman. Tesch said the elk production area is “below the Pandora’s lift area and outside the area of expansion.” He noted that the agency recommends the restriction on activity for elk production areas May 15 to June 30.

“Due to the relative close proximity to the production area and the current condition of elk herds in the Upper Roaring Fork Valley, CPW would prefer if logging was halted until the end of June.”

In an interview on Thursday with The Aspen Times, Tesch said disturbance in an elk production area could force elk cows with unborn calves to miscarry and force cows with newborn calves to leave.

“It’s likely they’ll leave and abandon that calf” if the disturbance is severe enough, he said.

MacFarlane Creek, which is mapped as elk calving area based on research, is roughly 1 mile away from where logging has taken place in the Pandora’s terrain. It is unlikely that the sound of chainsaws and associated equipment creates enough of a disturbance for the elk, Tesch said. However, the sound and particularly the sight of a helicopter could create enough of a disturbance to trigger a “fight or flight” response in the elk, he said.

Tesch said if the elk cows were able to find shelter in areas such as leafing aspen groves and were shielded from the sight of the helicopter, it would minimize the effect. The sound alone won’t drive them off, he said.

Hanle said Skico would not use the helicopter again until late July or early August.

June remains prime elk calving time, so Tesch said he would prefer to see the logging stop until July.

“In an ideal world, yes,” he said.

Forest Service’s position

The Forest Service responded to separate and independent comments regarding elk from CPW and the conservation group Wilderness Workshop during the 2018 environmental assessment on Pandora’s.

The Forest Service noted its EA considered mandatory wildlife seasonal closures between May 1 and July 15 “for the protection of elk during calving season.”

“These restrictions were considered for the construction, operation and maintenance phases of the project,” the Forest Service said.

A biologist conducted field surveys for elk activity in the Pandora’s terrain in July 2018.

“Evidence of elk calving was not identified; as such, this alternative was eliminated from detailed analysis,” the Forest Service response said.

A second season of surveys was planned within the Pandora’s site. If evidence of elk calving was found, the Forest Service said the operation plan “may be amended.”

The issue of off-site disruption of elk calving wasn’t addressed in the EA.

Aspen Skiing Co.’s Mak Keeling points down the hill towards where the Pandora Lift is proposed on Aspen Mountain on Thursday, August 12, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Forest Service decision on Pandora’s stated that if tree-cutting activities were undertaken prior to July 15, surveys for active migratory bird nests must first be undertaken. In addition, prior to any ground disturbing activities, Skico was obligated to survey for “Forest Service Region 2 sensitive species, including raptors and elk.”

White River National Forest public information officer David Boyd said those conditions were met.

Activity drew attention

Aspen City Councilman John Doyle said he took notice when he learned Skico started logging the Pandora’s area starting in May.

“It just raised a red flag,” he said. “I recalled there was a restriction on when they could remove trees because there was an elk calving nearby.”

While there is no restriction on logging dates in the Forest Service approvals, he accurately recalled CPW’s recommendation to wait until July and that Pitkin County had a restriction on logging on some lands.

Doyle actively opposed Skico’s expansion into the Pandora’s terrain. The county commissioners voted 3-1 in November to approve the project. Poschman voted with the majority.

Doyle said he voiced his concern over the logging to Poschman.

Poschman told The Aspen Times he inquired with the Forest Service, CPW and Skico last week about the timing of the logging.

“If there are elk calving, I don’t want helicopters flying in there,” Poschman said.

He said Tesch’s response to him “infers there’s a problem.”

When asked if Pitkin County’s approval documents should have prohibited logging on all lands until July, Poschman said it would have made the issue more “air tight” but he said it’s easy to second guess now. The county held more than eight public hearings and received substantial public comment on Pandora’s. The board weighed numerous issues, including effects on wildlife.

Poschman noted that the county approval prohibited logging prior to June 21 on a substantial amount of the Pandora’s terrain. He was uncertain if the county could have prohibited logging on the Forest Service property.

Poschman said he contacted Skico officials with his concerns about logging.

“I told them I’m going to be a rigorous advocate for elk,” Poschman said.

He said he is hopeful Skico isn’t “compromising its wildlife values” for the sake of the project and he is confident they will correct their actions if need be.

Doyle isn’t as forgiving of Skico.

“It seemed really clear to me they should have waited,” Doyle said. “I think they knew better.”

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