Saturday, December 01, 2012

Breckenridge Peak 6 Expansion is a Go

The decision by the U.S. Forest Service to approve the Peak 6 expansion at Breckenridge Ski Resort has been upheld after rejecting two appeals, carrying endorsements by 45 individuals and environmental groups.

The Forest Service reviewed the appeals, which were filed Oct. 9, and concluded that the approval of the 550-acre expansion did not violate any federal laws, regulations or policies and recommended upholding White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams' decision.

The formal decision was made by appeals deciding officer Brian Ferebee, a deputy regional forester for resources based in Denver.

“We take the appeal process extremely seriously,” Fitzwilliams said. “It's a very strict process and we're harder on ourselves than often others would be on us.”

With the rejection of the appeals, Breckenridge has the go-ahead to implement the expansion.

The ski resort plans to add two new lifts, a ski patrol/warming hut and a restroom facility. New terrain will encompass seven below-treeline trails — totaling roughly 68 acres — as well as about 339 acres of lift-served intermediate, advanced-intermediate and expert skiing above treeline. Approximately 143 acres of hike-to terrain will also be added.

“I am delighted the decision was upheld and eventually I look forward to moving forward with implementation,” Fitzwilliams said.

Some Breck residents are less inclined to celebrate the expansion.

Rocky Smith, a forest policy consultant previously employed by Rocky Mountain Wild who championed the effort of the appeal, said the Forest Service didn't provide a strong argument to uphold the decision.

“This was a very poor review with very poor reasons they gave for rejecting the appeal,” Smith said. “It seems like they didn't read our appeal or they didn't understand it. They responded in a way that makes you shake your head and say ‘why would they say that?'”

The resort is required to wait 15 business days, allowing the implementation process to begin as early as Dec. 14, according to Peech Keller, with the Forest Service.

“We've been hard at work with construction planning so that we can begin implementation as soon as possible,” said Pat Campbell, chief operating officer of Breckenridge Ski Resort. “We are incredibly excited to begin work on Peak 6 and be able to bring to fruition a 23 percent increase in Breckenridge's terrain for our guests.”

Opposition considering legal action

Smith said he's already heard from some opposition affiliated with the appeal that they'd like to argue their case in federal court after review by the University of Denver Law Center.

“We're considering legal action, but we just don't know yet if we'll go forward with that or not,” Smith said. “I don't know what judges we would get and I could not articulate what I think the outcome would be. The lawyers tell us they think it's a case worth taking.”

A history of opposition

Though deciding official Fitzwilliams said the region around Peak 6 is already unable to meet federal standards for lynx habitat, opponents of the expansion say impacts are not weighed by the need to ease crowding.

“Lynx habitat is going to be hurt by fragmenting the area they travel,” Smith said previously. “The Forest Service seems to think that since the habitat is already so bad it's OK to make it worse. It has been affected, no question, by the existing ski area. Right now it is impaired somewhat, but it's not severed. This expansion might sever it.”

Fitzwilliams and researchers for the Forest Service looked at conservation efforts in the project area, but said they “found very few if any that would help lynx at all.”

Many Breck residents in opposition are concerned that the expansion will not ease crowding, but intensify it.

“Breckenridge is a brutally crowded ski resort,” said Chad Zanca, a longtime Breck resident who says he regularly rides terrain off Peak 6. “To make it bigger and bring more people will only make it worse. Once this boundary is maxed out, where do they go next?”

Additionally, opponents of the decision argue the proposed intermediate terrain is unsuitable for the average skier and would not divert traffic from other parts of the ski area.

“Most of the terrain that would be opened up on Peak 6 is not intermediate. It's too steep, would not be graded and it gets avalanche debris from above,” Smith said. “It's going to be tough for the average intermediate skier, some of it is just way too steep.”

But, Breckenridge officials say the new terrain will spread out skier traffic.

“We appreciate the strong interest and thoughtful input of the community, which has helped to make this a better project,” Campbell said. “The expanded terrain will help tremendously to spread out the large crowds we see today and alleviate long lift lines. Further, our guests will be able to explore and enjoy an entirely new skiing experience of high-alpine bowl skiing at Peak 6.”

Still, with the expansion approval upheld, those opposed feel the appeal process was an uphill battle.

“The Forest Service just wanted to affirm this in any way they could, it's very disappointing,” Smith said. “We thought there was a pretty good chance we would lose this because you just usually don't win against the Forest Service.”