The U.S. Forest Service released new guidelinesTuesday, April 15, for ski resort expansions of summer and year-round recreation.
The policy clarifies how the Forest Service will permit ski areas that want to host events and activities like mountain biking, zip lines and ropes and disc golf courses, and it clears the way for Vail Resorts’ summer plans for Breckenridge Ski Area, Vail Mountain and Heavenly Mountain Resort in Lake Tahoe, Calif.
“We want to retain that natural setting that people expect when they visit a national forest,” said Jim Bedwell, director of recreation, lands and minerals for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region. “That being said, it is within one of our most highly developed settings, a ski area.”
The guidelines, which will be published in the Federal Register this week and take effect immediately, are revisions to the 1986 National Forest Ski Area Permit Act as part of an amendment pushed through Congress by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.
Udall introduced the 2011 Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, as a way to create more year-round jobs in mountain communities and boost Colorado’s recreational and tourism economy.
The bill also addressed the vague language of the 1986 act. For example, its language didn’t allow for snowboarding, though it clearly wasn’t interpreted that way by resorts, said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest.
Though the policy changes were drafted in the agency’s Washington office, he said, its writers asked for input from regional agencies.
For the last five or six years, ski industry leaders have been asking the agency to allow more activities like those already in place at ski areas on private land in the Northeast and at resorts in Europe, Bedwell said.
The Forest Service recognizes, he said, that more diversification is important to ski resorts’ business strategies and long-term viability in the face of threats to winter activities, like climate change.
He said the economic development and the health benefits to individuals and communities fall in line with the Forest Service’s mission.
The policy change is also driven by the agency’s desire to attract different demographics, including more of the country’s urban residents, to outdoor recreation. Those who don’t like or are unfamiliar with camping, hiking, skiing and fishing could experience the forest in a different way, Fitzwilliams said. They might gain a deeper appreciation for nature and then want to explore other national forest lands.
“Ideally we’ll see people using ski area parking lots and lodging and spending the day in the national forest beyond the ski areas,” Bedwell said, which would help the agency avoid building and maintaining new trailheads and infrastructure, because the ski resorts would bear the cost.
The agency will approve some summer uses, like zip lines, canopy tours and mountain bike parks, that can encourage outdoor recreation and the enjoyment of nature and can harmonize with the natural environment. The guidelines specifically prohibit some activities and facilities, including those common at amusement parks like merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels and roller coasters.
“Beyond that,” Bedwell said, “we can use our existing processes that we use on anything from a timber sale to a road construction to a mining activity to guide us to maintain that natural character.”
Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service always goes through the same process analyzing a proposal’s effects on animals, watersheds and other ecological factors.
“No matter what the project is, whether it’s a new lift, a ski run or a zip line, we look at them similarly,” he said. And not every activity will go on at every ski resort, he said. Things appropriate in some areas might not be appropriate in other areas.
But the biggest question with the expansions, he said, is the social impact, or how new activities could affect other people.
“We know there’s a sector of people who want certain types of solitude, and then there’s people who don’t care,” Fitzwilliams said, citing debates over motorized and non-motorized trails.
That’s difficult, he said, because it’s not as easily quantifiable as the effect on elk habitat of removing a certain number of trees.
Of the almost 40,000 acres designated as part of the White River National Forest, only 6 percent is for ski resort use, Fitzwilliams emphasized, and people who want more solitude can experience backcountry in the other 94 percent.
Locally, Breckenridge and Vail have been on the forefront of expanding their summer operations, Bedwell said. Other Colorado ski resorts are planning expansions but haven’t filed proposals yet.
Its proposed expansions involve mainly winter activities, like adding skiing terrain and building and removing chairlifts, as well as zip lines and a ropes course. Communications manager Adrienne Saia Isaac said Wednesday that any summer plans are still a few seasons away
A five-month-long legal battle over a 10.3-acre parcel in unincorporated Summit County has come to a close.
On Friday, April 11, Andy Barrie, former owner of the “Hunter Mine” property in the Hoosier Ridge area south of Breckenridge and operator of Uncle Dicks LLC, which manufactures holiday wreaths for nonprofit organizations, said he had reached a $115,000 settlement with Summit County for the purchase of the property.
The deal was made after Barrie and Summit County officials participated in court-ordered mediation in Denver on Monday, March 31. At that time, Barrie estimated he had spent close to $80,000 in legal fees in an attempt to keep his property.
Although Barrie thought he had a legitimate claim to the Hunter Mine — he argued an old mining road he used to access the parcel from his home in an established subdivision should have been grandfathered in as a county road under federal statute — the court-ordered mediator advised Barrie he would not only lose his battle in court, but would also likely double, if not triple his legal expenses in the process.
“I think we presented some interesting arguments, but I don’t have unlimited funds,” Barrie said. “They essentially spent me to death. I had an $80,000 gun to my head, two college tuitions to pay and I simply can’t afford to go on.”
Summit County initiated the suit in December 2013 when it filed a motion in district court for immediate possession to acquire the property through eminent domain, citing conservation values and recreational opportunities that needed to be protected for open space purposes. The Hunter Mine is considered an inholding, meaning it is surrounded on all sides by U.S. Forest Service land.
The county also referenced in the suit a cabin it had condemned because it was improved upon by a previous owner who didn’t acquire proper building permits.
In addition to the legal battle, Barrie also launched a four-month-long media campaign, telling his story to anyone who would listen, in an attempt to keep the land he purchased in 2011.
Since being reported in January by the Summit Daily News, stories about Barrie’s conflict with the county have been told by the Associated Press, the Denver Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily Mail, FoxNews and several radio stations across the country.
In the latest article, featured on Tuesday, April 8, on FoxNews.com, Summit County government said in a statement that, “Both parties engaged in productive negotiations in pursuit of a voluntary settlement regarding the purchase.” But Barrie said those negotiations have been anything but good-natured.
“The county is trying to spin it that we came to this agreement amicably and we did not,” he said. “There’s no way the settlement was amicable at all.”
After more than $80,000 in legal fees and a failed media blitz, the million dollar question is, was it all worth it?
“You know, I asked my son, who is a student at the University of Denver, what he would have done and he didn’t have an answer,” Barrie said. “This is a right that I had and if I didn’t stand up for it, what kind of an example would have I been setting for my son?”
Summit County officials had little to say about the deal, electing only to comment about previous claims Barrie made in the media that the county plans to swap the Hunter Mine parcel with the U.S. Forest Service for more valuable development acreage closer to Breckenridge.
“That is a complete fabrication,” Summit County manager Gary Martinez said. “That was never the intention and we have no intention of doing that at all. People will still have (non-motorized) access to the property, which is tremendously important ecologically and now more compatible with the entirety of the surrounding area.”
As far as next steps are concerned, Summit County attorney Jeff Huntley said the county took possession of the property last week after 5th Judicial District Judge Karen Romeo signed off on the order.
Barrie was granted until July 31 to remove any belongings from the condemned cabin, Martinez said. The county plans to begin tearing down the cabin in August.
Runoff season is approaching and Summit County is ready for a big wave.
According to the National Resource Conservation Service, a division of the USDA, snowpack in Summit County has been above average all winter, especially earlier in the season.
“You’ve had a great snow year,” said Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist at Colorado State University, “and it doesn’t take a crazy scientist to tell you that.”
The Summit Ranch measurement site recorded 30 percent above the 30-year median Friday. The Fremont Pass, Hoosier Pass and Grizzly Peak sites recorded between 126 and 139 percent of that median Friday.
“February was huge, March was plentiful and April so far has had just a storm or two,” he said, “but there’s another one coming for the weekend.”
The sites at lower altitudes, like the Copper Mountain site, have already started showing some snow melt, he said. The county is almost assured an excellent run-off season with full reservoirs.
Notwithstanding dry weather in the spring, the county should avoid drought conditions through the summer, said Troy Wineland, Summit’s water commissioner.
That bodes well for agriculture, wildfire protection and outdoor recreation that depends on rivers and streams flowing at certain levels.
And snowpack has treated other parts of the state well. The South Platte Basin has recorded the most above-average snowpack, he said, which means the East Slope should take less water from across the Continental Divide, leaving more for the mountain region.
According to their media coordinators, area ski resorts benefited from the above-average snowpack.
The settled base at Breckenridge Ski Resort is about 10 inches above normal for this time of year, said spokeswoman Kristen Petitt Stewart, and snowfall for the season so far is about 70 inches above average.
At Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, spokeswoman Adrienne Saia Isaac said, “year-to-date snowfall is just over 360 inches, and any season with that much snow is going to bode well for our business.”
At Pioneer Sports, a ski and snowboard rental shop in Frisco, marketing coordinator Jonathan Enns said having a good snow season, especially in January and February, has helped the business. But when the store transitions to bike rentals for the summer, he said, a long-lasting snowpack could push back its operation.
As winter winds down, spring and summer rafting and fishing prospects look good.
The Blue River water levels were too low for rafting for the last two years, said Campy Campton, co-owner of Kodi Rafting in Frisco, who has been rafting locally for almost 30 years.
In 2013, he said, the weather was shaping up to repeat the drought conditions of 2012.
“It was little stressful going into April,” he said, “but Mother Nature came through and saved us.”
His company normally starts tours May 1 but could start guiding rafters down river as early as next week. Campton said he has already made one trip down the Blue and two down the Arkansas River.
“It’s going to be an amazing season,” he said. “It’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
CAUSE for celebration
“Summit County is usually good at spreading run-off over long periods of time,” Doesken said. “Your high altitudes work in your favor, and the fact that the basin drains to the north works in your favor.”
This year’s above-average snowpack was likely caused by climate patterns around the country. With the “bone-chilling relentless cold” in the Northern Plains and Great Lakes region and the warm dry winter in California and the Pacific Northwest, Doesken said, Colorado was “sort of in a squeeze zone between the two.”
Summit County especially was hit with jet stream air blowing from the northwest, “popping it right up the Blue River Valley” and concentrating snow in an ideal and consistent way.
“Does that mean anything for the future?” he asked. “No. That’s just how it happened this year.”
Anglers and hikers, snowmobilers and mountain bikers might notice some construction work near Tiger Road and Muggins Gulch starting this summer.
The Forest Service announced Wednesday, April 2, its completion of the environmental assessment for the Swan River restoration project.
The 35-page document, released March 31, details the project proposal for the river, which lies along Tiger Road in Breckenridge. According to the Forest Service, the environmental assessment found all key issues for the project, including resource concerns and impacts, could be resolved or lessened through the project design.
The 2-mile project, a small part of larger restoration plans for the entire 24,000-acre Swan River Watershed, has involved years of cooperation and collaboration among private and public landowners and stakeholders, including the town of Breckenridge, Summit County, and a handful of nonprofits.
“Corey has earned a lot of appreciation for all the work he’s done in pulling this together,” said Troy Wineland, a board member of Blue River Watershed Group.
Peggy Bailey, a hydraulic engineer who worked on restoration of the Blue River in the 1990s, called this project unique because of all the players involved.
The river area “is so totally ruined,” Bailey, also a board member of the Blue River Watershed Group, said. “You really are starting from scratch.”
Once Upon A Mine
More than 100 years ago, miners plundered Summit County’s rivers in search of gold. In giant steam-powered barges, they worked up the Blue and Swan rivers using a technique called dredge mining. They dug deep below the riverbed, brought cobble and rock to the surface and scoured it for precious metals.
“They flipped the river upside down,” Lewellen said.
Now, he said, parts of the river are buried by up to 80 feet of rock, causing gaps where the river flows underground and reappears down valley.
Before the mining, the 100-acre Swan River Valley was home to wetlands, willows, beaver ponds and a healthy cutthroat trout population.
“If you go out there right now, that’s all gone,” he said. “All you see is tons and tons of rock.”
The Swan River, a tributary of the Blue River, was formed by three tributaries that joined to become the main Swan until four generations ago.
Because the three forks no longer meet, the native cutthroat trout have been isolated in the north fork of the tributaries. The population has become genetically similar and unhealthy, Lewellen said, and threatened by invasive brook trout.
The restoration will provide about 15 miles of fish habitat. Part of it includes relocating the brook trout and reintroducing the cutthroat trout so they can migrate freely among the three tributaries. That part of the process is probably several years off.
“We’ve got to first and foremost fix this river,” he said. “That’s quite a task just by itself.”
Some parts are already done. Blue River Watershed Group funded the stream design, and Sam McCleneghen, owner of the sand and gravel mining business Rock Island Land Co., contracted with Everist Materials, a company that has been mining the rock in the lower part of the river for the last four or five years.
Now the proposal is in the middle of a 45-day objection period. Those who spoke on the project during the comment period earlier in the year can still file an objection if they believe issues they raised have not been adequately addressed. Lewellen said objections are unlikely because the four comments received were supportive or not in reference to the project.
The next steps likely will happen sometime in May, Lewellen said, when the Forest Service finalizes the assessment and signs public access easements with the people who own land in the upper mile of the project.
The landowners, Brian Holt, owner of the snowmobiling and dogsledding company Good Times Adventure Tours, and McCleneghen are supportive of the project, Lewellen said, and they plan to grant public access to land about 180-feet wide through the middle of their properties. This not only allows for restoration work but also for river access for the public who want to enjoy it recreationally.
This summer, people can expect to see a new road in the Muggins Gulch area built and the old one decommissioned.
How You Can Get Involved
The restoration will cost about $8 million, Lewellen said. But part of the project already has paid for itself. In 2007, the Daily reported developers of a subdivision in Muggins Gulch bought and removed gravel from the area to use as structural fill for their development.
The rest of the funding will come from a variety of sources, he said, including nonprofit fundraising, grants, and local, state and federal money.
The project will be completed in segments over the next five to 10 years, Lewellen said.
Bailey, a hydraulic engineer, said she would love if the nonprofit could “secure a nice big hunk of finance so we could do it all at once.”
Local nonprofits, including Trout Unlimited and Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, have scheduled volunteering opportunities for anyone who wants to contribute labor.
The complete environmental assessment and information about filing an objection can be found at the White River National Forest website at: http://www.fs.usda.gov/projects/whiteriver/landmanagement/projects under Swan River Stream Restoration.
Those interested in making a financial contribution or volunteering can contact Sarah Barclay, president of the Gore Range chapter of Trout Unlimited, at 970-401-4697 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Earn your turns — it’s the mantra of a growing Alpine touring (AT) and ski mountaineering culture, those among us who elect to forgo the modern convenience of the chairlift to hike uphill before skiing down it. Whether it’s to get to the backcountry’s fresh lines or just for a morning workout in-bounds, the numbers are continuing to grow, according to SnowSports Industries America, the trade association that monitors trends in the ski industry. But in that culture there’s also a growing subset of even more rabid uphillers; the ones in it for competition. And every spring for the last 23 years they’ve been returning to the slopes at Breckenridge Ski Resort for a special kind of competition, the Imperial Challenge.
Part bike race, part uphill climb and Alpine downhill, the competition could best be described as a triathlon with a High Country twist.
“It’s a blend of winter to spring where you’re riding your bike and skiing in the same day,” race organizer Jeff Westcott said, calling it a “rite of spring” here in Summit County.
“It’s a Breckenridge tradition that people put on their calender,” he said.
Resort spokeswoman Kristen Petitt Stewart added, “ It’s a part of our culture here. As much as we love to downhill, there are plenty of us crazy enough to go up. This event embodies that spirit of athleticism.”
This year’s Imperial Challenge will take place Saturday, April 12. Registration is ongoing and will include day of registration for an additional charge.
The first leg of the competition starts with a 6.2-mile bike race from the Breckenridge Recreation Center to the Peak 8 base area, via back roads and past Peak 7. In addition to cycling, this year’s event will also feature a running option for the first part of the course.
“I’m excited that they added that element,” Petitt Stewart said. “I’m excited to see how those legs do.”
From the Peak 8 base area, competitors have a number of options. Those with touring setups will click in and start a 2,000 to 3,000 foot climb — depending on course selection — up Peak 8. Others may opt to snowshoe up the slope with skis or board strapped to a pack. Still others may opt for even simpler methods, Westcott said, also explaining that the competition typically features a broad range of abilities.
“You’ll have everything from the hardcore ski mountaineering crew to people carrying snowboards. It’s a great blending of different types of folks. It’s not just for the hardcore.”
The uphill portion features two course options. There will be a short course where athletes will turn around after reaching the top of the T-bar, and a long course that will summit Peak 8 at the top of the Imperial chairlift.
“To climb and summit Peak 8, there’s something special about it,” Westcott said of the draw to the competition. “Conquering that thing you look at every day is really cool.”
In its 23-year history, the race has seen many iterations. It first started as a run from the top of Chair 6 up and over the Imperial Bowl.
“This was well before a lift was up there,” Westcott said.
In later years the competition involved carrying full ski gear during the biking portion of the race.
Race organizers revived that spirit last year with a retro category that will return again this year.
“We’re getting back to our roots,” he said. “It was huge (last year). A couple people pedaled in their tele boots.”
Runners will have a 9:15 a.m. start, bikers will follow at 10 a.m. There will be a 12:30 p.m. cut-off time at the top of the T-Bar for the long course.
This is the second part in a two-part series about technology in the mountains.
Head up any drainage in and around Aspen and cell service disappears. In Summit County, some homeowners in relatively developed areas can’t get a signal. And in Eagle County, anyone who drives along Interstate 70 or skis at Arrowhead knows where the dead spots are.
“It’s amazing to me that Keystone, Dillon, Frisco, and others all have full-service LTE cell phone connection,” Lauren Forcey said. “However at my house in Summit Cove, I’m lucky if I can make or receive a call without dropping the signal.”
Cellular service is a different animal than wireline broadband because cellular towers require straight line connections. In the town of Vail alone, construction is underway to install 23 new cellular poles, or small towers, through a distributed antenna system (DAS). Seven of the towers have already been installed in the Vail town core, with the remaining set to go up between now and December. The project also includes the installation of new fiber optics strands from Vail Village to each tower.
“In order to get the speeds and capacity you need for 4G in our region, you need a DAS system,” Vail IT Director Ron Braden said.
In Vail’s case, a company called Crown Castle International is building the towers and leasing that infrastructure to cellular carriers like Verizon and AT&T. In Aspen, a similar project is in the planning stages with a company called American Tower, said assistant Pitkin County manager Phylis Mattice.
Local governments like Pitkin County can’t get involved beyond things like land use provisions or franchise agreement regulations, but officials trying to grow broadband and other technologies throughout the mountain region hope to change that. The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Broadband Strategic Plan outlines a need for legislation that would allow rural government entities to step in where they’re currently not allowed.
Senate Bill 152 prohibits Colorado government entities from providing telecommunications services, however the NWCCOG Strategic Plan shows that some rural mountain communities have little else in the way of telecommunications options.
“It may be prudent for the region to establish a telecommunications cooperative to manage assets and improve broadband throughout the region,” according to the Strategic Plan. “A telecommunications cooperative could manage infrastructure implementation and continue to provide operations and maintenance support. A telecommunications cooperative may provide a means whereby implementation projects can happen within the constraints of Colorado law.”
On Wednesday, a package of bills aimed at easing telecommunications regulations in the state glided through the state House of Representatives with a 277-43 vote. House Bill 1328 proposes to redirect $54 million earmarked for basic phone service to a new broadband development fund for under served communities. Accompanying bills propose to eliminate state sales tax on broadband equipment, deregulate Internet-based services like Skype, deregulate basic phone services and enable better access to public rights-of-way for infrastructure projects.
The thinking behind these bills is already happening regionally — that government can and does have a role in making telecommunications upgrades easier and more inviting for the private sector without going so far as to provide the actual services.
“Philosophically, cities should be averse to deploying a monopoly system and should shun the idea of delivering services themselves. Rather, they should perceive for themselves a more traditional municipal role – providing infrastructure,” the NWCCOG Strategic Plan reads. “The actual delivery of services should be left to competing private service providers – as many as are qualified to serve the market. This model ensures that a publicly-owned infrastructure is made available to a wide variety of competing private firms for the delivery of goods and services.”
That’s why Aspen and Pitkin County are revising land use codes that in the past limited telecommunications towers to 40 feet, Mattice said. Now the limit is based on what is determined appropriate for a specific location rather than an arbitrary number, she said.
“In some places it might be OK for an 80-foot tower on the side of a mountain — make it look like a tree,” she said. “Land use is what we can bring to the table.”
‘Small fish in a big pond’
There’s an undeniable natural evolution in that technology advances where you can impact the most customers first, said Meagan Dorsch, corporate Verizon Wireless spokeswoman.
“Therefore, the major metro areas would typically get the ‘new’ technologies first,” she said. “However, we consider the major ski resorts a very important area and a high priority, so there is little lapse in time to getting new technology to these areas.”
A new cell antenna was recently approved for the base of Buttermilk Mountain, and two new cell towers are being proposed this month around Aspen. AT&T also provided temporary towers during the X Games in January to try to better the overloaded system during such a high-use time.
In Summit County, a tower was finally approved recently for the Lower Blue River Valley after residents tried for years to improve cell coverage. The gap extended north of Silverthorne to Green Mountain Reservoir, an area where Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said concerns are high for wildfires and emergency response. And in Summit Cove, just east of Keystone, there’s a lot of frustration about cell service.
“The most important thing is public safety,” Stiegelmeier said. “If there’s an accident you want to call 911, you don’t want to go find a pay phone — which doesn’t exist — or go knock on somebody’s door.”
And as more people work out of their homes, the economic development piece becomes more important. Telecommuters need good broadband and good cell service.
“The cell tower at our landfill area should resolve that problem,” she said. “We hope to see it go up this spring or summer at the latest.”
As cell towers sprout up throughout the region at a relatively fast pace, wireline broadband remains the regional issue that lags behind. But Eagle County IT Director Scott Lingle said it gets complicated when you start using the word “broadband,” because you can also get data over cellular technology. The emphasis of the NWCCOG Broadband Strategic Plan is really on broadband internet access, he said.
It’s realistic to assume that we’re not going to be as high-tech as a big city, he said.
Comcast continues to improve its mountain speeds and Xfinity service, and CenturyLink’s version, called Prism, is launching in Western Eagle County soon. CenturyLink spokesman Randy Krause said the company is able to provide 40 megabit service in many areas with gigabit service “coming in the future.”
The Colorado Department of Transportation is continuing to install more fiber optic cables this year, which is what precipitated some of the broadband upgrades the region has seen in recent years. A $15 million CDOT fiber optics project is underway from Vail to Glenwood Springs, which follows the completion of fiber installation over Vail Pass in recent years.
The fiber optics upgrades allowed Comcast to deliver faster speeds to the Western Slope, as well as more high definition channels and additional capacity, spokeswoman Cindy Parsons said.
The upgrades over the years are helping, but more needs to be done, NWCCOG Executive Director Liz Mullen said. She hopes that a new regional broadband coordinator — she posted a job opening for the new position early this month — can serve as the liaison between the counties, service providers and the state to identify ways to implement some of the ideas in the Strategic Plan.
“We’re a small fish in a big pond sometimes, but having eight counties working together I think makes us a little bit bigger and more interesting to (service providers),” Mullen said. “We really want to work with the service providers — we’re not looking for towns to run their own services.”