Beetle kill becoming a factor in some Vail Resorts ski plans |

Beetle kill becoming a factor in some Vail Resorts ski plans

Bob Berwyn
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado ” A focus on forest health and beetle-killed trees will play a big part in shaping future plans for new trails at Vail Resorts’ ski areas in Summit County.

“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 said.

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 will definitely affect ski area plans, said Dillon District Ranger Jan Cutts. 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 home owners 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 last 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, head of mountain operations during a meeting with Keystone home owners.

The improvements listed are for a projected 10-year span. Resort officials said implementation would depend on market conditions and other factors.

A Ski Tip lift was in the works more than 10 years ago, touted as a new portal for the resort close to a planned satellite parking area along Montezuma Road.

But critics said the chair was primarily designed to serve a small high-end residential development, and that development in that part of the resort could encroach on an important wildlife-movement corridor. The resort ultimately withdrew the proposal.

New trails on the front side of Keystone Mountain were singled out as high priorities. Those types of projects could tie in with the studies on how to address the beetle-kill issue.

Keystone potentially wants to add a Spring Dipper bypass to create more green terrain and a better skier flow on the east side of the mountain. And a Schoolmarm bypass would allow intermediate-level skiers to access favored front-side cruisers like Wild Irishman and Paymaster without mingling with beginners on Schoolmarm, according to Lovell.

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.

All those factors have slowed the pace of the Peak 6 studies. Currently, town, county and resort officials are meeting to discuss a bundle of measures that could mitigate some of the effects of the Peak 6 expansion, according to Breckenridge Town Councilmember Dave Rossi, who served as a town government representative on the task force.

In the end, that process could be formalized with a memorandum of understanding. In Rossi’s view, the town and county will then have to decide whether the mitigation measures adequately address the concerns about potential impacts.

But he is also concerned about how enforceable the agreement would be.

“This has not teeth. It’s mostly symbolic,” he said, explaining that the Forest Service has the ultimate authority over the Peak 6 proposal.

“We’re hoping that the Forest Service will listen to the town and the county,” he said.

The final wording of the agreement could determine whether the town and county formally express support for the project. As it stands now, Rossi said it would be a close vote for the Breckenridge Town Council.

Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at

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