The saga of expanding the Snowmass Ski Area onto Burnt Mountain is all but over, although the federal government will be taking another look at a plan to remove trees from an exit road, and there could be another battle in the future should the Aspen Skiing Co. ever decide it wants to pursue a new chairlift in the area, which is included in its long-term master plan.
The previously backcountry area east of the Long Shot run and the Elk Camp chairlift now has the trappings of a ski resort. There are signs marking the 230 acres as black-diamond terrain, as well as a warning that skiers should have “fat skis” to deal with the ungroomed snow that piles up between the trees. Many of those trees were thinned out over the summer, to provide better linkage between open meadows.
A ride on the Elk Camp gondola, followed by the Elk Camp chair, drops skiers off at the bottom of a short boot pack to the Long Shot run, which was previously the ski resort’s eastern boundary. Long Shot may be the only hike-to terrain in ski country designated as a blue-square intermediate run. The crowds at the top of the boot pack now have more options.
“We are very happy to have this terrain open to the public,” said Snowmass Mountain Manager Steve Sewell. The backcountry-like skiing experience brings Snowmass to 3,362 acres, the second largest ski area in the state behind Vail.
Sewell and SkiCo mountain planner Victor Gerdin designed the Long Shot run in the late 1990s, as SkiCo was expanding the Snowmass Ski Area to include Two Creeks and Elk Camp. The industry at the time regarded the notion of creating hike-to intermediate terrain as crazy, Sewell said. But the run has turned out to be a hit with out-of-town skiers who flock to Snowmass each winter, giving them a taste of what locals know as “earning your turns.”
Burnt Mountain offers these skiers the next step in the progression. At 230 acres, the area is vast — about one-third the size of Aspen Mountain. SkiCo has split it up into three runs that all feed down into an exit traverse about 1,600 vertical feet later. But by the time a skier reaches the traverse, they might wonder where all that vertical went — most of the terrain is mellow and low angle, full of rollers and mini-gullies. But it holds its snow.
The traverse out is now well marked, with ropes and ski-area-boundary signs that are intended to keep people from making the mistake of skiing down the drainage and into a thick forest with no easy way out. Many have made the mistake in the past.
“We’ve done an awful lot of after-hours rescues down there,” Sewell said, referring to the days before the exit was marked and the area was often-skied backcountry. So far this season, only one party has required a rescue, he said, and those individuals were guilty of ducking a rope.
The Snowmass Ski Patrol also added three new members going into the season to help manage the new terrain, Sewell said.
The public has until March 25 to submit comments to the U.S. Forest Service on SkiCo’s plans to remove trees from a 3,100-foot-long exit traverse, creating a 35-foot-wide cat track in an area that was previously considered inventoried roadless area. Based on those comments, the Forest Service will decide whether the plan needs to go through an environmental assessment, a more stringent environmental impact statement, or if neither process is required.
The federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review could be the end of a long road for SkiCo and the community.
When Snowmass was conceived in the 1960s, planners included Burnt Mountain in the permit area of the ski resort. The SkiCo in 1994 updated its mountain plans, specifying its desire to develop Two Creeks, Elk Camp and Burnt Mountain.
The plans for Burnt Mountain initially included two new chairlifts; one longer chairlift on the western edge of the zone and a shorter chairlift to the east. Facing outcry from environmentalists — the area includes habitat for the endangered Lynx, and is adjacent to the protected Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness — SkiCo pared this down into a plan that didn’t require chairlifts, although the western chairlift remains in the long-term master plan. For it to be built, however, there would need to be an additional round of federal review, and skier visits would need to spike dramatically, said Gerdin, the mountain planner.
At the turn of the millennium, as SkiCo was finalizing its Burnt Mountain plans and preparing to submit them to the Forest Service, President Bill Clinton made a sweeping designation as he left office. His directive designated all existing undisturbed federal lands as “roadless,” and specified that they be kept that way.
The part of Burnt Mountain within the Snowmass permit area was not included in the Forest Service’s 2002 inventory of roadless areas, but everything east of the permit area to the Buttermilk ski area was listed. This decision — to exclude the Burnt Mountain permit area from roadless designation — became the subject of a lawsuit by a coalition of locals and a Wyoming environmental group.
The 2006 lawsuit, filed by two skiers and the Ark Initiative of Pinedale, Wyo., charged that the Forest Service erred when it didn’t include all of Burnt Mountain in its roadless inventory. The area has all the characteristics of roadless lands, such as pristine wildlife habitat and seclusion for the few humans who venture there, the suit argued. Developing it as the SkiCo proposed would do irreparable harm to those values, the plaintiffs argued.
By late 2011, judges at the federal district and appellate court level sided with the SkiCo, saying its plans to thin trees on the majority of Burnt Mountain could go forward, except for one hitch.
When the SkiCo pared down its Burnt Mountain plans and submitted the proposal to the Forest Service in 2003, it made an adjustment to its permit area, bringing in a portion of what was designated as roadless after Clinton’s directive. The parcel was in the middle of the Gene Taylor Traverse, a narrow passage through the trees that takes skiers back to the resort and the lifts. Judges ruled that this needed more examination before SkiCo could buff it out and make it wider.
In the aftermath of Clinton’s roadless rule, the Bush administration gave the states the option to make their own roadless rules. Colorado spent six years on this process, and last year came up with an approved plan that excluded from roadless designation any lands that are within the permit boundaries of ski areas on the national forest. With that rule handed down, the debate over the previously roadless portion of Burnt Mountain could be considered moot, since it was now in the ski area permit boundary. SkiCo got the green light this summer to begin the work.
But the Ark Initiative sought a preliminary injunction that would prevent the SkiCo from finishing the work, and after trees on the upper part of Burnt Mountain had been thinned, the work stopped in the section of the 2.5-acre area that traverses through the previously roadless zone.
The judge who handled the preliminary injunction request pointed out that the plaintiffs didn’t comment during that extensive public process creating the Colorado roadless rule, and denied the motion.
But sensing it still had a controversy on its hands, the Forest Service announced last week that it would “re-analyze the environmental impacts of the new section of trail ... to determine if any new conditions require additional analysis as directed by NEPA.”
The Forest Service requests that comments be sent to Jim Stark, the winter sports administrator for the Aspen Ranger District, at 806 W. Hallam, Aspen, CO., 81611. Comments also may be faxed in to 970 925-5277 or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .
There are undoubtedly more people in the Burnt Mountain area, now that it is an official part of the ski resort. Sewell said no official counts have been done, but he estimated that around 100 people a day ski back there now.
On the run itself, Sewell said the SkiCo went to great lengths to take a light touch to the tree-thinning process. The goal, he said, was to open up sections of trees where they were previously very thick, to make the run flow a little better. But otherwise, he said, the goal was to leave the mountain as close to its natural state as possible.
After skiers make their way through the bulk of the run, and begin the traverse out on the exit road, it becomes obvious where the forest-thinning work was halted. The passageway becomes thinner, and trees marked with a slash of blue spray paint have been “cruised,” Forest Service jargon for marked for removal. The SkiCo has already paid the permit fees to cut the trees, Gerdin said. Orange makings stuck to the trees help guide skiers out of the woods, and a rope line keeps them from going too far downhill.
The wear and tear on the narrow traverse was obvious Thursday, as rocks and logs had been exposed in certain areas as the trail has been skied off. Eventually, the trail dumps skiers onto a bench with stunning views of Sky Mountain Park and the Owl Creek drainage. From there, it’s a short ski back to the Long Shot run and the Two Creeks chair.
The point of all of this, Sewell said, is to provide a quality skiing experience for the resort’s paying customers. Mission accomplished on that front, he said.
“All those people,” Sewell said, referring to the skiers coming out of Burnt Mountain earlier that day, “had smiles on their faces.”