New lift a "trial balloon’
Instead, the ski company was merely testing the waters to gauge the acceptability of the project. It pulled the plug on the lift last week.
But the project may have been scrapped for the time being because the ski company and the U.S. Forest Service overlooked – until late in the process – an agreement requiring development in the Back Bowls to be completed under a revised master development plan, senior Forest Service officials said. That agreement was forged during the Category III, now Blue Sky Basin, development.
In announcing that the lift would not be built, the ski company in a letter to this paper cited the weight of public opinion as the reason it was not pursuing the new lift. Three dozen people wrote letters indicating mixed support for the proposal.
The proposal to build a high-speed lift in Sun Down Bowl was a “trial balloon” aimed at gauging the current of public and regulatory opinion, said Bill Jensen, chief operating officer for Vail Mountain.
That surprised some letter writers, like Eagle’s Bill Heicher, a retired state Division of Wildlife employee who reviewed hundreds of development documents during his 33 years on the job.
“If it’s a trial balloon, they need to tell the public that it’s a trial balloon,” he said.
Heicher wrote the Forest Service expressing his concerns about the project and cited the 1999 agreement among the ski company, Forest Service and wildlife regulatory agencies. The news that the ski company was just testing the waters and that it was occurring as part of a new process came as a surprise. He believed it was the real McCoy.
The respondents and others were caught up in an exploratory planning process that the ski company and Forest Service are using for projects at Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas called “scoping,” said Jensen.
“It allows us to avoid some of the emotional issues that surfaced during Blue Sky Basin,” Jensen said. “The scoping process is is not a formal process. There’s no cost to the ski area. We wanted to see what the public and regulatory reaction was to it.
“We never drew a line on a map and said this was our future,” he said. “We wanted to see what public and regulatory reaction was to it. We never had any intention of pursuing any of these projects next summer or the following.”
Jensen said it was indeed public opinion that swayed the company’s decision not to pursue the project, not other considerations.
“I was struck by the comments that Sun Down Bowl is unique and special ski experience that makes Vail and extraordinary place,” Jensen said. “I agree with them. Putting in a lift would detract from that.”
Respondents expressed concern that the improved lift would change the character of the bowl and create more moguls and groomed terrain.
So was the ski company being disingenuous by proposing a project it had no intention of building, or simply holding its cards close to its vest?
Not at all, said Jensen. He said the ski company has never concealed the fact that it was engaged in scoping the project. Such exercises are one way of determining what the company can do with the mountain.
“We’ve got to get the community over the fact that when they see a scoping process that this is something we intend to do in the next three years,” Jensen said. “It’s a new process the Forest Service implemented post-Blue Sky Basin. I love the scoping process because it allows us to put ideas out in public before Vail Resorts and the Forest Service are spending hard dollars in planning and regulation.”
Another project the ski company “scoped” that stirred public comment last year was a proposal for small “wind farm” electric-generating wind generating stations atop Ptarmigan Ridge on Vail Mountain. Jensen said that project, too, was a trial balloon designed to gauge its acceptability. The idea, which would supplement the power needs of Vail Mountain with electricity generated by the wind, does not have a scheduled completion date.
Higher perhaps on the ski company’s list of priorities is the $75 million land-swap and redevelopment of Vail’s Front Door at the head of Bridge Street, and the $500 million redevelopment proposals for Lionshead. The Front Door project is ready to begin construction next summer, while the Lionshead redevelopment is just starting the review process with an estimated construction date of 2005.
Senior Forest Service officials acknowledged that the 1999 agreement was overlooked until very late in the scoping process. Its discovery amounted to a very big “oops,” they said. They are saying that the ski company and the Forest Service may have overlooked an existing 1999 lynx conservation agreement regulating any development of the Back Bowls that was forged as part of the development agreement over Blue Sky Basin.
Jensen disputes that and says it really was a non-issue.
“We weren’t going to build the lift,” he said.
In part that agreement was aimed at conserving the threatened and endangered lynx. That shy, 22 pound snowshoe hare-eating feline was last seen on Vail Mountain nearly 30 years ago.
The possible possible existence of lynx in Blue Ski Basin became the center of a heated public debate in 1997-98 over developing that forested area. In October 1998 ecosaboteurs calling themselves the Earth Liberation Front caused $12 million damage when they torched the Two Elk Lodge and several lift towers atop Vail Mountain. Those responsible have not been caught.
In forging the development agreement for Blue Sky Basin, the ski company, Forest Service and state and federal wildlife agencies agreed that future development in the Back Bowls would be governed by a master development plan that would be periodically updated.
The Sun Down Lift proposal would have required the ski company to create a new plan for the area.
The existing Vail Mountain master development plan, which was amended prior to building the 885-acre Blue Sky Basin, extends through July 1, 2005. The terms of the special use permit that the ski company has with the Forest Service require that any changes to the mountain – lifts, new reservoirs, trails – be thoroughly studied and included in a master plan. That plan and any changes it proposes will need to be further scrutinized under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Those concerns were outlined in a Nov. 19 letter to the Forest Service from Russell George, state director of the Division of Wildlife.
“In regards to the new Sun Down Lift, we believe the main issue at this time deals with the lack of a master development plan, which was a requirement for additional development in this area,” George wrote. “The construction of the Sun Down Lift appears to be in conflict with element 3 of the lynx conservation agreement (March 6,1999) completed for CAT III.”
Jensen said he had not seen that letter.
He penned a letter to this newspaper last week announcing the ski company had decided to “hold off” on building a new high-speed lift in Sun Down Bowl. Vail Resorts operates the ski mountain under a special use permit on Forest Service land, subject to Forest Service regulation.
Last August, Vail Resorts submitted a plan for the lift to the Forest Service and two months later, the ski company took the idea to the public.
The trial balloons are part of a larger plan being developed for the mountain, Jensen said. That plan has been requested by the Forest Service once the new White River National Forest Plan is accepted. That forest master plan has been subject to a dozen appeals under review now by the chief of the Forest Service and are expected to be resolved this spring.
Big and small game wildlife studies, funded in part by Vail Resorts and conducted over the past two decades in the Back Bowls and Blue Ski Basin, suggest that ski area development there has had a detrimental effect on snowshoe hare numbers, which are the prime prey for lynx. Ski runs opening the forest change the ecosystem dynamic, allowing more predators access to the forest-loving hares.
Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or firstname.lastname@example.org