Public comment trimmed from ski area planning process
Summit County Correspondent
SUMMIT COUNTY ” A move by the U.S. Forest Service to cut red tape means ski resorts will be able to do more or their planning without formal public comment.
Many of the existing ski area master plans were completed under the stringent requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, often known as “NEPA.” That process requires extensive public involvement and a “hard look” at alternatives.
Ski area master plans are long-range, conceptual documents that outline potential future development. The new rules allow for less public comment in some areas, while still requiring it for lifts, snowmaking or on-mountain buildings (such as restaurants) proposed within three to five years after the plan is approved. That’s according to Ed Ryberg, who recently retired from his post as winter sports administrator with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain region.
Ryberg said most of Colorado’s ski areas are currently updating their master plans. Dillon District Ranger Rick Newton said that process is also in the early stages at local ski areas, including Arapahoe Basin, where the Forest Service is developing an “Environmental Impact Statement” to analyze several amendments to the area’s master plan ” including a proposal for a new lift in Montezuma Bowl.
All four Aspen areas, and the resorts of Eagle County, are working on their plans, Ryberg said. Steamboat just completed an update, while Crested Butte and Durango Mountain Resort have also proposed changes, according to Ryberg, adding that in the past five years, Colorado resorts have added about 2,300 acres of new terrain.
Cutting the intensive up-front review is intended to reduce regulatory gridlock, Ryberg said, describing a multi-layered process that can end up being a “massive waste of time and money.” In some previous cases, the agency and resorts devoted considerable resources to the required studies, but by the time they’re done, conditions had changed to the point where some elements of those plans were never implemented.
One example is the long-running environmental study for new lifts, trails and snowmaking at Copper Mountain. Although a decision on that proposal is expected soon, an official at Intrawest ” which owns Copper ” recently characterized the study as an “antiquated” document.
But the move away from public involvement in ski area master planning could be controversial, as watchdog groups have criticized resort expansions for chipping away at important wildlife habitat. On the White River National Forest, natural resource impacts related to ski resorts exceeded those of any other human activity during recent years, the Environmental Protection Agency said when it commented on the forest’s recent plan revision.
The push toward streamlining environmental reviews is of general concern to Colorado Wild’s Rocky Smith. It raises the question of just how much ski areas will continue to grow, and whether that growth is warranted in the context of skier visit trends.
The 2002 White River National Forest plan revision anticipated significant growth in skier numbers at Summit County resorts. About 6,000 acres of new terrain were allocated to ski areas in Summit and Eagle counties ” another reason for the Forest Service to look at master plan updates, Ryberg said, adding that some of the areas are operating under 20-year-old plans.
“I think Breckenridge’s plan goes back to 1985 or ’86,” Ryberg said. “They’ve really been piecemealing on to that for quite a while.”
Steamboat was one of the first areas to complete a master plan update under the new process.
“It’s too early to say ‘streamlined,’ at least in our case,” said Chris Diamond, president of the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corporation. “The jury is still out as to whether it will help us. But I think there’s the expectation of a certain amount of collaboration.”
Diamond said that, even without the public scrutiny required by federal environmental laws, the ski area worked to garner extensive input from the community.
“We paraded that draft plan out there to everyone ” season pass holders, local governments, employees; we did the Rotary Club thing,” Diamond said.
Ryberg said Steamboat’s public outreach effort was exemplary and a critical element of the master planning process.
“The guys in Summit County are not as open about getting things out on the table,” Ryberg said.
He added that if ski areas involve the public up front like Steamboat did ” even if it’s not a formal NEPA process ” then the Forest Service has a level of comfort with approving the plan.