Over-terrained?

Locals, environmental groups continue to question the wisdom of Eldora’s proposed expansion

0
KamenG, via Wikimedia Commons

If Eldora Mountain Resort’s expansion moves forward, it’ll be at the objections of local business owners and residents, who have congealed in the citizens’ group Middle Boulder Creek Coalition and been joined by the Indian Peaks Group of the Sierra Club, as well as the Boulder County Commissioners and the Town of Nederland’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Board, and at the hesitations of the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Their concerns center on a new chairlift and ski runs that reach down to Hessie Road, one of few access points to the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and a bridge across Middle Boulder Creek requested to service that new lift. Development in the area would disrupt a key wildlife migration corridor, damage wetlands and forests that are approaching old growth status, and bring noise and air pollution to an otherwise quiet valley. They’ve questioned the effects to aquatic and forest habitats, water quality and the views enjoyed by those who seek out the area for something other than downhill skiing.

In 2011, Eldora released a revision to its master plan that called for improving chairlifts, adding terrain and new chairlifts, constructing a new on-mountain lodge and expanding parking areas. An assessment of existing facilities found areas to address to improve the experience, and perhaps the safety, of skiers and snowboarders at the resort, and the opportunity to improve forest health and vegetation management.

The ski area, located 21 miles west of Boulder, straddles land managed by several agencies — both Boulder and Gilpin counties, as well as privately owned land and public land owned by the U.S. Forest Service — and those various parties have weighed in on the Forest Service’s Draft and Final Environmental Impact Statements and Draft Record of Decision, released in February, which show the Forest Service approving much of the requested expansion.

“The [National Environmental Policy Act] process is an exhaustive review of conditions and impacts both potential and known for a project. We went into it knowing that it was going to take about the time that it has taken,” says Jim Spenst, planning director for Eldora Mountain Resort.

The Forest Service drew components from two alternatives submitted to give the go-ahead for the addition of 66 acres of ski trails, 77 acres of tree and gladed skiing areas and modifications to 42 acres in six areas of existing tree and gladed skiing. The decision allows the resort to add a total of 185 new acres of intermediate, advanced intermediate and expert terrain, more than half of which are in tree and gladed skiing areas. The ski area was also granted the addition of two new chairlifts, one on the southeast side of the mountain, off the existing Jolly Jug trail and glades, and one that would in part parallel the Indian Peaks lift on the north-facing side of the resort and drop below that lift all the way to County Road 130, which runs through the small mountain town of Eldora alongside Middle Boulder Creek and ends at the Hessie and Fourth of July trailheads.

“The upgrades and expansions included in my decision will provide additional terrain, improve reliability and safety of operations (particularly during wind events), and generally modernize the resort’s infrastructure to provide an improved recreational experience,” Forest Supervisor Glenn Casamassa wrote in the Draft Record of Decision. “I believe that skiers from Front Range communities will measurably benefit from these projects.”

The Forest Service recently closed the comment period on the specific components, like chairlifts and ski runs, of their draft decision.

“That opens a dialogue and creates an opportunity for us to go back and correct any errors or mistakes, things that didn’t get addressed,” says K. “Reid” Armstrong, public affairs specialist and community liaison for the Boulder and Clear Creek districts of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. “The decision may not change at all, so there’s from that end of the spectrum to components of it could change if that’s what’s determined necessary.”

Comments, or objections, were taken only from those who had previously submitted objections on the issue. There are still a couple weeks for comments on the Forest Plan amendments that accompany the decision.

In their latest letter to the Forest Service, Boulder County Commissioners reiterated objections they issued in 2014 after a public hearing in which testimony predominantly opposed the expansion. The commissioners acknowledged the value of the ski area to local residents, but stated that they’re not convinced the ski area couldn’t accomplish their goals of increased offerings to downhill skiers and snowboarders within their existing footprint or with a much smaller expansion.

“The fundamental flaw in the Draft Record of Decision … is a lack of analysis of environmental impacts and reasonable alternatives upon which the decision is based,” the commissioners’ letter states. The final document “represents an improperly truncated review of alternatives; a lack of meaningful analysis on secondary and cumulative impacts, given the reasonably foreseeable full-build-out of the Ski Area’s Master Plan; substantial and potentially unacceptable impacts to the Middle Boulder Creek drainage; and insufficient details on mitigation to compensate for unavoidable impacts.”

Objections generally skip over the replacement chairlifts (new six-person chairlifts to replace the existing Corona and parallel Cannonball/Challenge lifts the Forest Service describes as “old, uncomfortable, slow and … susceptible to wind closures”) and even the on-mountain facilities updates, which would see the Lookout, a former firewatch tower, double in square footage and add an additional 16,000- to 20,000-square-foot lodge near the top of the Indian Peaks lift. Adjustments would be made accordingly to the potable drinking water and sewage disposal systems. A parking lot would also expand to include 560 additional spaces. The new Challenge Chairlift will terminate in an enclosed structure — passengers unload shielded from the wind.

They’ll start construction as soon as they’re given the final go-ahead, and exactly what that will be will depend on the time of year, Spenst says.

“The ski area has been a part of Boulder County’s recreational opportunities for more than half a century,” Armstrong says. “This decision would continue to allow the resort to provide that experience.”

Ski areas occupy a small portion of the national forest, but offer a connection between the American public and their lands, and an economic boost to communities, Armstrong adds.

Roy Young, owner of Nature’s Own store in Nederland, says he sees the proposed expansion running quite the opposite direction for Nederland’s business and restaurants.

“An expansion of 500 parking spaces and the additional lifts and the large restaurant on the top of the mountain just means that people that might otherwise visit our community will be turned away by traffic congestion,” says Young, who has been running a business in Nederland for almost 30 years and seen seasons when the ski area didn’t open at all.

Cars already back up on Shelf Road, the narrow road that provides the only access to the ski area, and increased traffic will just push the line farther down the hill toward town.

“Once you spend that time sitting in your car and if you’ve got a huge restaurant complex on the mountain, I see little reason why anyone would stop in Nederland, and there wouldn’t be a place to park anyway,” he says.

Approved new terrain would put five new ski trails in the Jolly Jug area, six new trails in the Placer area and four in the Corona area. Those numbers are a bit generous, including some trails that are merely dog-legs to connect existing trails to new ones and some that are only a few hundred feet long. But still, more terrain, more trails. An exciting move for the ski area.

“All of those improvements will give the area more vertical, it fully utilizes the terrain and will provide greater variety for people,” Spenst says. The bulk of objections from an environmental perspective center on the proposed Placer Express and the ski area’s intrusion into Forest Service land in the Middle Boulder Creek valley — it simply isn’t worth the costs to the localized environment, objections say.

“All the ski area will get out of it is about 200 feet, which if you’re downhill skiing, it’s going to take you about two minutes,” says Alan Apt, wilderness chair for the Rocky Mountain State Chapter of the Sierra Club. “It’s not a huge addition to what they already have back there.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 2014 assessment of the proposal weighs pros and cons. Some aspects of the expansion could improve habitat quality by creating a “mosaic effect” that would diversify a forest stand that is otherwise of a fairly even age and perhaps increase productivity of forage plants used by the dusky grouse, mule deer, elk, moose and black bear, among others. Glade terrain projects could improve productivity of the forest understory and allow plant species to thrive as they do after a forest is thinned. But they also expressed that extreme winds in the area could scour snow from newly cleared ski runs and thinned forests, and result in moisture loss for plants.

Their primary concern was the extension of the ski resort boundary toward Middle Boulder Creek and the riparian habitat along Hessie Road. The natural corridor along the creek funnels wildlife through the drainage and has created a well-functioning riparian complex of beaver ponds and wetlands. Marshy conditions along the creek keep hikers on Hessie Road until trails lead to points farther west in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Because of that traffic, wildlife tend to use the south side of the creek — where the ski area has proposed new developments, including the bridge, lift terminal and lift towers, which could adversely affect wildlife moving through the corridor, and would be expected to do so year-round.

The Placer lift, and other expansion operations in the area including tree removal, will also need to be serviced by vehicles, and to that end, the resort has proposed building a bridge across Middle Boulder Creek that connects newly constructed roads for service vehicles around the ski area with County Road 130. The bridge will be gated year-round and posted with signs, but Middle Boulder Creek Coalition and Colorado Parks and Wildlife question how the ski area will enforce that closure and suggest that the bridge will do what bridges always do — provide access. That access will put people on a side of the creek they don’t often visit, and see human activity year-round in an area that, because of the natural topography, is a funnel-like wildlife corridor.

There’s also a sense that the bridge opens a door to expanding the ski area into the Hessie valley, and that’s something Eldora locals adamantly oppose.

County Commissioners had suggested the ski area build a service road from the existing Corona lift to the base of the proposed Placer lift, some 1,600 feet, instead of the bridge. That proposal is unanswered in the latest draft from the Forest Service.

Traffic through the town of Eldora would see an increase year-round, and an already crowded parking area for the trailhead could lose parking spaces, the Coalition and Boulder County Commissioners say. The commissioners argue the Forest Service should analyze how many people and vehicles use those trails and road, and what experience they’re seeking.

As it is now, the busy trails at Hessie stay on the north side of the creek and the south side, with its peaty fen (marsh) and forests nearing old growth status, remains undisturbed. Elk, moose and Canada lynx make use of that quiet, as do marten, goshawks and boreal owl. Willows along the creek are also important habitat and a primary migration corridor for moose, which could be negatively affected by noise pollution and human activity in the area. The Forest Service’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement mentioned that this is a small portion of the overall range for moose.

“This statement is true in the context of overall range, but it is not accurate in relation to primary movement corridors and quality forage areas typically associated with riparian areas similar to [Middle Boulder Creek],” Colorado Parks and Wildlife writes.

“Between Middle Boulder Creek and the bottom of the existing Indian Peaks lift is completely undisturbed. It’s north-facing, it’s a very lush environment, there are no roads there, and fishermen fish along the creek there. It’s a documented wildlife migration corridor — there’s an elk herd that migrates through there,” says Bill Ikler, with the Indian Peaks Group of the Sierra Club. The Indian Peaks Group of the Sierra Club will be signing the Middle Boulder Creek Coalition’s objection to the draft record of decision and final environmental impact statement on Eldora’s proposed expansion. “So it’s a small amount of acreage, relatively speaking, but a very critical acreage because of where the elk migrate through and the fact that it is undisturbed.”

Elk would likely move on, according to the Middle Boulder Creek Coalition, having lost to ski trails and glades the islands of habitat they and mule deer use as transitional and summer range for fawning, calving and rearing young. Compacting snow, as skiing does, alongside the human activity on the new ski runs would also discourage lynx from establishing winter bedding in the area.

To allow the expansion, the Forest Service plan will have to be amended to grant the ski area an exception to a standard that requires riparian areas be maintained along the entire length of the zone on at least one side of a drainage to maintain wildlife travel corridors.

Cutting trees to make these runs would also prevent the late successional stage stands from attaining old growth status. Old growth and late successional forests do not lend themselves to thinning or opening up, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Forest Plan guidelines call for maintaining or increasing habitat for old growth areas and sites not planned for harvest.

Creating, and even just having, the new trails may increase erosion. Some of the tree removal could occur within 50 feet of streams, and 12 acres of tree removal would occur in the water influence zone. Reducing organic groundcover can increase stream flows, leading to the erosion of banks and adding sediment to the water, as well as impairing soil quality for years to follow.

Stream turbidity increased by the expansion could also affect aquatic invertebrates, larval fish and adult brook and brown trout, and could be noticed by recreationalists and downstream neighbors, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Revegetating areas could take three to five years, or up to 10 years where the land has been graded.

The plan for the upgraded Corona lift would also require direct and permanent impacts to 0.07 acres of wetlands and indirect impacts to 1.41 acres of wetlands, including 0.11 acres of fen, low-lying, peaty marshes. Eldora Mountain Resort’s construction so far has already led to the loss of 30 acres of wetlands, most of them now under parking lots.

The slow accumulation of peat in fens makes these areas generally irreplaceable, and the EPA strongly recommended avoiding any affects to fens. The Forest Service also in general advises against any damage to fens.

The coalition also mentions concerns about noise from chairlifts, snowmaking guns and ski run grooming echoing off the valley walls that could be heard by local residents and hikers on the popular trail up to Lost Lake during as much as 40 percent of their hike; air pollution; rare plants likely to be adversely affected by development; damage to the viewscape; archaeological artifacts in the area that could be destroyed; and incompatibility with local land use plans.

Wind is notorious for closing down chairlifts at the ski area, and according to the Eldora plan and the Forest Service, the new, lower elevation Placer Express could continue operations when others are shut down by wind.

But the Forest Service decided against doing a wind study, and so the Middle Boulder Creek Coalition says, “It is at best unclear how the proposed new lifts would help during wind closures.”

The Coalition cites data from a private weather station at the western end of the town of Eldora that found many days with winds over 50 miles per hour, some at more than 80 miles per hour. That suggests the lift may be every bit as likely to close existing lifts. If the ski area wants to address wind closures, the Coalition suggests, they should work to make the Corona and Challenge lifts more wind-resistant.

“It seems important to know what the wind levels are near Middle Boulder Creek on the days when wind levels are so high as to close the lifts at the resort,” the Boulder County Commissioners’ letter states.

The idea of hiking out of the Hessie trailhead with ski area infrastructure immediately visible is almost unimaginable, says Young, with Nature’s Own.

“It just changes its character,” he says. “The expansion of the area outside its boundaries addresses in no ways the impacts on water, on wildlife, on the impacts on recreational enjoyment of anyone but intermediate expert alpine skiers.”

“The Forest Service is a multiuse agency, and so we’re committed to providing a variety of recreational opportunities, and among those is downhill skiing,” Armstrong says.

The Jolly Jug expansion raises its own question marks, namely that it pushes into the existing trail system used by cross country skiers and snowshoers. Those trails wouldn’t be closed, but users would be forced to traverse four ski runs and the Jolly Jug Glades to follow the Jenny Creek Trail.

“With the configuration the Forest Service granted, it’s going to pretty much obliterate that trail or at least make it very hazardous — I mean, would you want to snowshoe across a trail that has high-speed skiers and snowboarders?” says Alan Apt, with the Sierra Club. “It basically is kind of lopsided, what they have approved. It heavily favors downhill at the expense of other users.”

The Middle Boulder Creek Coalition points out that counting on these southeast-facing slopes to get and keep enough snow to enjoy the terrain is a gamble.

The ski area’s efforts to increase their terrain, particularly for expert skiers, might be achieved within their existing boundaries, the Middle Boulder Creek Coalition argues, and without extensive tree removal or expensive mitigation measures and the desired increase in wind resilient chairlifts could be accomplished by upgrading the existing Indian Peaks chairlift. Boulder County Commissioners agree an in-fill option wasn’t given due consideration.

“Preservation of the ‘critical balance between active recreation and wilderness,’ as we urged in our comments on the [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] last year, can best be achieved by denying expansion of the Resort boundaries north to Middle Boulder Creek,” writes Randy Lee, Town of Nederland Trustee and Nederland Parks, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Board chair, in his letter on the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

While the water quality monitoring the Forest Service’s decision called for is appreciated, a preferable approach would avoid the risks of degrading water quality in the first place, he says. The creek is the town of Nederland’s sole source for drinking water and their intake isn’t far from the resort.

“We are not reassured by a ‘we’ll monitor and fix it if it’s broken’ approach (we know the speed of government),” Lee writes.

The potential for carbaryl contamination — the insecticide used to treat trees at Eldora Mountain Resort to prevent mountain pine beetle infestation — is alarming to Nederland, as well as Boulder city and county. If the expansion proceeds, Lee writes, the town will begin testing for the substance in the water supply.

Both his letter and that from the County Commissioners express concerns over increased traffic to the area. “I recognize that the Placer Express chairlift and terrain project has been a point of contention with members of the community,” the Forest Service’s Casamassa writes in his draft decision. “Alternative configurations were considered for the Placer Express chairlift, however, these various alignments created other resource issues due to extensive grading, additional vegetation removal and other ground disturbance. As the Forest Supervisor managing approximately 2 million acres, I consider how projects affect the ARP [Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grasslands] as a whole, while understanding there are localized impacts resulting from site-specific decisions. … Impacts disclosed in the [Final Environmental Impact Statement] are localized. However, I firmly believe these impacts are nominal in the context of the entire ARP and even at the spatially smaller county level.”

Young says that opinion “fails to address that this is a key gateway into the Indian Peaks Wilderness, which is a crown jewel of Boulder County.”

The Draft Record of Decision, Lee, with Nederland’s parks and open space board, writes, “appears to be a USFS partnership with private enterprise that accepts local impacts as acceptable collateral damage and shuts out the dissenting voices of those agencies and local governments that are more naturally partners than adversaries of the Forest Service.”

Boulder County’s commissioners also contest the metric, stating: “One might as well use the entire state of Colorado as one’s comparative metric; it is equally misguided.”

Spenst, with Eldora Mountain Resort, describes the whole process as exhaustive and having looked at all sides of the issue.

Asked why he would proceed with the expansion, particularly toward Middle Boulder Creek, in the face of the concerns, he says, “Because I don’t think that their concerns are valid and the EIS addresses all the comments and everything that has been concerns and we see really no reason not to continue.”

Some question the incentive the Forest Service has to foster ski area growth, given the millions of dollars in leases they receive from resorts.

“I’ve noticed that the Forest Service has been very accommodating to Eldora Mountain Resort’s expansion proposal from the very beginning,” Ikler says. “They gave EMR a favorable interpretation of the 2011 Forest Plan Revision that opened the door for the ski area to expand, an exemption to a wetland impact rule and failed to do a promised independent wind study, despite the fact that one of the major rationale for Eldora’s expansion is wind.”

The Boulder County Commissioners letter states, “the County does not agree that the Final [Environmental Impact Statement] has used the best available science and information.”

The Environmental Protection Agency concluded that in some ways, they didn’t have enough information in the 550-page Environmental Impact Statement to fully assess the environmental impacts of the proposed expansion. In general, the agency found the two action alternatives had “potential impacts that should be avoided” but that the Draft EIS didn’t contain sufficient information to fully assess those environmental impacts.

Both that draft assessment and the master plan revisions from Eldora were prepared by SE Group. The Forest Service doesn’t see that as a conflict of interest; SE Group doesn’t have a financial stake in the outcome, and though paid for by the proponent, in this case Eldora, cannot communicate with Eldora through the process.

“You’re hiring a neutral third party whose purpose is to consult and to do projects like this,” she says.

Requiring the proponent to hire a consultant takes part of the burden off the taxpayers, she adds, and the Forest Service’s in-house team of experts reviews all of the information compiled by the consultant.

“There’s a conflict of interest that is rather glaring when it’s an exercise in self-justification,” says Young. “The suspicion in the community is that this is, as a lot of real estate is, a way to get permits and plans approved and in place and then try to sell.”