The Basin wants to get bigger
Arapahoe Basin, Summit County’s oldest (56 years) and smallest ski area (490 edgy acres), may try to gain a little more elbowroom.The U.S. Forest Service decided last month that A-Basin can proceed with snow and terrain studies in Montezuma Bowl, a first step toward a potential expansion. Any formal proposal for lift served skiing would be subject to extensive site-specific review with public involvement, Dillon District Ranger Rick Newton says.Ski area workers will dig snow pits to gauge avalanche danger and assess the suitability of the terrain in the 800-acre bowl located south of the existing lifts. By taking a close look at the bowl, ski area planners can determine how to maximize access to good ski terrain while minimizing disturbance to wetlands, old-growth trees, rare plants or important wildlife habitat.The area is also considering other upgrades, including improvements at base facilities, where bottlenecks in the cafeteria, rental shop and ski school can occur on busy days.The Montezuma Bowl expansion is not part of the master plan, but the area wants to look at all its options, says Greg Finch, Avon-based vice president with Dundee Realty USA, A-Basin’s corporate parent."Do we sit back and digest the money we just spent and see what happens?" Finch says, explaining that the ski area wants to know if its new $3 million snowmaking system brings a return on investment.But any proposed resort expansion could face significant opposition from environmental groups representing citizens who don’t believe there is any need for additional terrain. Under the recently revised White River National Forest plan, the resorts in Summit County all have room to grow, based on the assumption that population growth on the Front Range will spur skier demand during the next 10 years."Terrain expansions like this don’t address the transportation bottleneck to the mountains," says Colorado Wild’s Jeff Berman, a long-time Forest Service and ski industry watchdog.Colorado Wild appealed a section of the revised White River forest plan that zones parts of the forest for future ski area expansions. The group challenges the assumption that demand will grow enough to justify additional terrain. Most of the resorts can address growth in skier visits within their existing terrain, Berman says.Other concerns focus on cumulative impacts to natural resources. Though ski resorts only occupy about 3 percent of the White River National Forest, the EPA commented during the plan revision process that ski area expansions and improvements caused "more wetland impacts and stream depletions (than) all other management activities combined." The EPA specified concerns about irreversible impacts to ecosystems that are disproportionately impacted by ski areas, including old-growth forests, slope and fen wetlands and tundra.Some backcountry users, represented by the Backcountry Skiers Alliance, have also appealed the forest plan, claiming that resort growth at A-Basin, Keystone and Breckenridge will result in a cumulatively significant loss of easily accessible backcountry terrain that’s popular with local residents and Front Range visitors alike. In support of its appeal, the nonprofit group cites statistics showing that backcountry recreation is growing, while the number of visitors at resorts has remained relatively static in recent years.A-Basin officials emphasize the need for their ski area to stay on par with its much larger neighbors. A $3 million snowmaking system was a big step in that direction. Now, the area is trying to figure out what to do next, says Finch.Summit County’s other three ski areas boast at least three or four times as much terrain as A-Basin: Copper Mountain has 2,433 acres; and Keystone and Breckenridge, both owned by Vail Resorts, offer 1,861 and 2,043 acres, respectively."First we’ve got to finish our snowmaking," Finch says, explaining that the system was 85 percent installed before the autumn snows came.As a first step toward terrain expansion, the area may ask the Forest Service for snowcat access to Montezuma Bowl, Finch says. Ski patrollers could then gauge snow and weather conditions over the course of a season."What have we really got there? We’re a long way from having a 1,000 people skiing over there on a Saturday afternoon," Finch says.
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