Forest Service approves Keystone cat skiing | VailDaily.com

Forest Service approves Keystone cat skiing

Jason Starr/Summit County Correspondent

KEYSTONE – Keystone’s evolution continued Friday when the U.S. Forest Service announced approval of the resort’s snowcat skiing operation into the Erickson and Little bowls.

The resort plans to offer full- and half-day tours into the bowls, which sit on the ridge connecting Keystone Mountain and the Outback – they lie just north of the ski area’s North and South bowls and offer mostly intermediate terrain.

“We’re very excited about this,” said director of mountain operations Chuck Tolton. “This is an opportunity to provide an experience that’s never been offered before.”

Tolton spearheaded the effort to start a snowcat program at Copper Mountain, where he worked for two decades. That operation takes skiers and snowboarders up the ridge to Tucker Mountain, cutting the hike to the expert terrain in half.

It is similar to a program Keystone ran for the first time last year, in which a cat took skiers up the ridgeline above the Outback free of charge, eliminating the hike to North and South bowls.

The operation approved Friday is different than those and the first of its kind in Summit County.

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In addition to the skiing aspect, the resort also plans to take non-skiers on sightseeing tours along the ridge.

“I’m as excited about the sightseeing component of this as I am about the cat-skiing,” Tolton said.

Keystone presented the idea of a cat-skiing operation to the Forest Service about a year ago.

According to Tolton, the idea came from ski patrol supervisor John Ulbrich and had been kicked around among employees for several years.

For the past year, there have been two 30-day public comment periods and an environmental analysis as part of the Forest Service’s review.

Dillon District ranger Rick Newton, who made the final decision to approve the operation, said he received 12 total letters from the public regarding the operation. In this case, the benefits clearly outweighed the potential negatives, in Newton’s opinion.

“We didn’t see any significant environmental concerns with the proposal,” Newton said. “One of the key things I was looking at was the desire to diversify recreational opportunities at Keystone – to add a type of service it hadn’t had in the past. This increases the ability for a variety of folks to use and see that area.”

The only outstanding area of concern is how the operation will affect access to the backcountry around Keystone. The resort and the Forest Service plan to address that by combining forces on a boundary-management plan.

The ski area will adjust its operations boundary to include Erickson and Little bowls, which are already within the ski area’s permit boundary.

This will require additional ropes and signs in the area to alert skiers when they are leaving the ski area and entering uncontrolled backcountry.

Before Keystone can begin marketing and fleshing out the details of the operation, including price, it will wait for a final 50-day public appeal period.

During this time – from Friday until the first week of February – the Forest Service is accepting written appeals on this proposal at USDA Forest Service, Supervisors Office, ATTN: Appeals Deciding Officer, P.O. Box 948, Glenwood Springs, CO 81602.

A detailed record of the environmental analysis is available at the Dillon Ranger District at 680 River Parkway in Silverthorne. Contact the office by phone at (970) 468-5400.

Assuming no appeal of merit comes, Keystone will begin the operation in February on the first day conditions allow.