Forest service clears Avon-Beaver Creek gondola
Preliminary findings in a just-released U.S. Forest Service environmental study say the proposed project would cause little disturbance to plants or animals on White River National Forest lands where gondola towers would be built.
“We see pretty minimal ground disturbance,” said Dave Ozawa, a snow ranger with the Holy Cross Ranger District, who wrote the study. “From my perspective, I don’t see a lot of on-the-ground impact.”
The environmental study is only a draft version that gives residents and other interested groups 30 days to add comments. The study, and the gondola, won’t be up for final approval from the Forest Service until sometime this summer.
The gondola, as currently proposed, would begin in Avon –at the so-called “confluence” – and carry skiers to the Tarnes Apartments, then continue to Bachelor Gulch and end at the top of the slopes at Strawberry Park.
The first two legs – from Avon to Bachelor Gulch –would not cross over public lands and were not examined in the study. Only the final leg to the top of mountain was analyzed.
But Tom Allender, director of resort planning for Vail and Beaver Creek, said Vail Resorts has already done an extensive environmental analysis on the entire length of the gondola.
“We were happy with the finding. They reinforced what we thought the findings would be,” Allender said. “We worked real hard on the placement of the gondola to avoid environmental impacts.”
The gondola, as designed, would pass over some wetland areas, but only one gondola tower will be built in a wetlands area. Allender said that’s a 25-square-foot area Vail Resorts already has a permit for.
“We worked with the manufacturer to make sure towers did not land in wetlands,” he said. “We showed them a map and told them where they couldn’t put towers.”
Designers staked the location of the towers under the supervision of a wetlands expert, Allender said.
Vail Resorts estimates the gondola will cost more than $30 million to build; company managers have said they’re not going to build it alone. Vail Resorts, which will pay the largest share of the costs for the gondola, has asked the Beaver Creek Resort Company, Bachelor Gulch and the town of Avon to pitch in.
The Beaver Creek Resort Company has been given approval to increase the village’s civic assessment –similar to a sales tax –and two other “assessments” to raise money for their share of the gondola.
The increases were approved in a special election April 5 even though a majority of homeowners voted against what resort officials have touted as Beaver Creek’s long-range financial plan.
The homeowners were outvoted by Vail Resorts, developers and business owners.
An environmental endorsement, however, probably won’t change the minds of some Beaver Creek homeowners who are still staunchly against helping pay for the gondola. Homeowners interviewed by the Vail Daily in past weeks have said the gondola would only make the resort more crowded and they’re not excited about sharing the cost.
“The gondola won’t do anybody that lives here any good by bringing new people up here,” homeowner Allen Gobel said after the April 5 election. “People could have bought homes in Vail but they came here to avoid the crowds.”
At the same time, homeowners have been complaining for years about increasing car and bus traffic on Village Road, which runs from Avon to Beaver Creek Village. But resort officials have tried to allay homeowners’ fears of congestion by saying the company doesn’t plan to make Beaver Creek a “high-volume” ski resort.
Ozawa, meanwhile, said the Forest Service doesn’t expect the gondola to cause an explosion in skiers on Beaver Creek Mountain. With the population expected to double in Avon over the next 15 to 20 years, he said, the buses running between the town and the slopes eventually will be overwhelmed.
“The question is could the bus system handle it and we don’t think it would?” Ozawa said. “You can only put so many buses on the road.”
An increase in guests and residents is expected to occur as several already approved developments are built in Avon. As many as three hotels and hundreds of condominiums will likely be built in Avon during the next decade.
“I expect skier visits to increase, but probably at a slower rate than during the “90s,” Ozawa said. “But that’s what’s driving gondola as alternative transportation.”
The forest service also examined the gondola’s potential to become an eyesore in the valley – and found that potential low.
“If you’re driving on I-70, you might see a couple of lift towers,” Ozawa said. “The only place it might be visible from is if you’re up on the Wildridge side. You’ll see a notch in trees, but you’re already looking at the ski runs on Bachelor Gulch and you’d really need to know what you’re looking at.”
Vail Resorts is also waiting to hear if the town of Avon is interested in sharing the cost of the gondola. Town officials have not yet decided but have said Avon’s share of the gondola with probably be born by its taxpayers.
Allender, meanwhile, said the gondola will have its environmental benefits.
“The important message for this gondola is it’s ability to effectively move skiers to critical distribution point on Beaver Creek and get them out of buses and out of their cars,” he said.
Matt Zalaznick covers public safety, Eagle County Courts and Avon/ Beaver Creek. He can be reached at (970) 949-0555 ext. 606 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org