Snowmaking

Snow-making guns on the Little Nell during the early-season run up. Aspen Skiing Co.’s plan to expand snowmaking to the top of the mountain is the subject of an opposition filed by Wilderness Workshop seeking a deeper dive into region-wide snowmaking expansion proposals.

An environmental group is raising concerns that the cumulative impacts of numerous snowmaking expansion projects proposed or underway at ski areas throughout the region are not being adequately evaluated by the U.S. Forest Service.

Snowmaking is both a cause of and a response to climate change, Wilderness Workshop argues in an objection filed in response to the White River National Forest’s approval of Aspen Skiing Co.’s project to expand snowmaking and terrain on Aspen Mountain.

The Carbondale-based nonprofit’s objection requested the Forest Service withdraw its November decision in support of the Aspen Mountain project so that a “programmatic environmental impact statement” (EIS) can be drafted looking at the bigger picture. The objection focuses on impacts of increased river depletions to endangered fish in the Colorado River, changes to runoff patterns and increased energy use associated with the system expansions.

In recent years, at least six other ski areas beside Aspen Mountain in the central and northern Colorado Rockies have sought or have received approvals for more snowmaking, according to a listing provided in the footnotes of the objection. These include Snowmass, Vail, Steamboat and Copper Mountain (see related story, page 3). More ski areas are likely to do so in the future as a hedge against climate change.

The Forest Service’s regional office in late February denied Wilderness Workshop’s objections, finding that cumulative impacts of increased energy use and water depletions have been considered and they are within acceptable ranges so that fish will not be harmed.

A final decision from White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams is still pending on the Aspen Mountain project. It would add about 53 acres of snowmaking coverage to the top of the mountain, requiring 57 more acre feet of water annually, on top of around 184 acre feet currently in use at Aspen Mountain, though the exact amount varies from year to year.

A Forest Service official last week credited Wilderness Workshop for asking good questions and said that the government could do a better job explaining how it reaches conclusions related to the snowmaking evaluations. The process involves consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as SkiCo agreeing to a “recovery agreement” that sets expectations for how water is managed when there isn’t much to go around.

And while it is great that the regional office in Lakewood affirmed the decision and process conducted by White River forest officials and the SkiCo, “that doesn’t mean we are done looking at watershed effects,” said Roger Poirier, mountain sports program manager for the White River National Forest. Further study is expected on the cumulative impact of snowmaking in the context of higher demand going into the future.

Peter Hart, staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop, said that the National Environmental Policy Act is designed to look at cumulative impact, so that a series of individual decisions that in and of themselves are innocuous do not add up to a greater systems impact.

A programmatic EIS would be appropriate because this latest wave of snowmaking projects share common geography, timing, regulatory framework and impacts, Hart said.

“When we started seeing a raft of snowmaking projects being proposed and we started seeing the Forest Service approving those on a case-by-case basis and not taking a broader look, we just started raising questions,” Hart said.

Wilderness Workshop has not created an exhaustive list of pending and potential snowmaking projects throughout the wider Colorado basin nor calculated potential cumulative impacts in terms of total acres of terrain to be covered or acre feet of water used, Hart said.

“We don’t have some of the technical expertise we would need to answer some of these questions, but we think that legally the Forest Service has an obligation to do that,” he said.

The 11-page objection says that, “To deal with reduced natural snow reliability, ski areas want to make more snow. But to make more snow, these companies need to use more diesel fuel and coal to generate the electricity to pump water to the snow guns and fan it out over the slopes. They rely on diesel-powered snowcats to spread the snow into a skiable surface.”

“ … Here, the USFS must consider the potential impacts of all connected, cumulative and similar snowmaking projects. Failure to consider these impacts together is a violation of NEPA and tantamount to turning a blind eye to the impacts that are driving ski area managers to propose these projects in the first place.”

A response to the objection from the Forest Service’s regional office noted that “a forest wide programmatic analysis of all snowmaking projects occurring on the White River National Forest would extend beyond the scope” of the Aspen Mountain environmental analysis but “the cumulative effects of proposed snowmaking on multiple resources are adequately considered.” The response cites a Bureau of Reclamation programmatic biological opinion studying the impacts of upper Colorado River basin depletions on endangered fish and a biological evaluation specific to the Aspen Mountain project.

“What we have heard from the Forest Service is that there is nothing to worry about, everything is OK, but you are right, we have not done a very good job explaining why that is the case,” Hart said.

Hart pointed out that much of the government’s analysis depends on a 1999 study where all existing water depletions were considered existing conditions. But in the 20 years since, understanding of climate change and other environmental threats has increased, Hart said.

“We are hopeful that [the Forest Service and SkiCo] can convincingly show us that our concerns that we are raising are not that big an issue,” Hart said.

But until that happens, the organization will continue building a record of concerns raised.

Wilderness Workshop executive director Will Roush said that Fitzwilliams, the forest supervisor, “has told us he is committed to putting some work into this, to trying to run some numbers.”

Hart said the organization considers itself to be in a “great spot” because in this case, you have a proponent and a regulatory body that “really does care about the environment.”

“That is helpful,” he said.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.