After more than two years of research, discussion and analysis, the proposed expansion projects at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area are another step closer to becoming a reality.
The White River National Forest released a preliminary environmental impact statement (EIS) on the prospective undertaking a week ago, on Friday, Feb. 5, as part of the comprehensive process examining these new development projects on national forest land. Doing so initiates a 45-day comment period that allows members of the public to offer critique and feedback on the proposal.
The project would include the addition of approximately 338 acres of skiable area in the Beavers and a new chairlift to provide access to this new terrain, replacements of the Molly Hogan and Pallavicini chairlifts, removal of the Norway lift and construction of a zip line canopy tour and a ropes challenge course for the summer. Arapahoe Basin hopes the additions enhance the overall enjoyment to which its guests have become accustomed.
“We think this project is critical to the long-term success of the Basin,” said Alan Henceroth, Arapahoe Basin’s COO. “We hope to maintain the quality of what the Basin is by adding more terrain to the mix, keeping the slopes uncrowded and the lift lines short. We think people are going to love it, and we’re trying really hard to keep the culture and vibe the same but keep improving the experience people have.”
The top priority of the project is the Beavers, which, once approved, will take a couple summer seasons of construction to complete. Henceroth foresees opening up the area for hiking during the 2017-18 season and bumping up to full capacity once the lift is installed for the 2018-19 season, assuming the EIS process goes as hoped moving forward.
“It’s phenomenal skiing,” he said. “It’s really heavily skied, but it’s serious avalanche terrain, and there have been number of significant, fatal accidents. We think the public is better served with a managed avalanche program instead of an out-of-bounds area that people get to and bad things happen.”
As for other upgrades, such as a new surface lift providing better access to the Montezuma Bowl, that is a much smaller project and should be finished fairly quickly. At the moment, the addition of the summer attractions have no timeline.
Per the U.S. Forest Service’s request, Arapahoe Basin mulled over many enhancements internally, including those presented, before making the proposal, said Dillon District ranger Bill Jackson. The public commenting periods are then designed to help the Forest Service take into consideration factors and concerns it has overlooked or not yet deliberated over in order to address potential environmental impacts before green-lighting any such project.
“Based on the comments during the scoping period both internally and externally,” said Jackson, “we worked together with A-Basin to look at the practicality of some of the proposed items and went back to the drawing board to modify the proposed action. We try to adjust as we can.”
The scoping period is basically the initial review period to gather input that helps focus the EIS, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. This law requires federal agencies to include environmental values, such as the impact of proposed actions and the alternatives to them, into the decision-making process. Scoping for this project took place in late-2013.
In this case, the scoping period produced 15 comments that helped to inform this Draft EIS and are addressed in the document, ranging from the possible effects on wildlife, as well as wetland and fen impacts. This led the Forest Service and Arapahoe Basin to reduce the number of new ski trails requiring tree cutting, remove a snowmaking reservoir and pull out from the introduction of a full zip-line system.
“The canopy tour with the zip line between the towers is less intense and less of an exhilaration ride,” said Jackson. “I’d characterize it as getting closer to nature and less about going to the top and zipping down. It’s more intimate, in my opinion, a slower pace overall and a good fit at A-Basin.”
The summer portion of these type of expansions, also happening at Breckenridge Ski Resort through its “Epic Discovery” program and, in the initial stages of a proposal at Copper Mountain Resort, are permitted under the Ski Area Recreational Opportunities Enhancement Act from 2011. The law was sponsored by then-U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) and signed by President Obama, giving the go-ahead to existing ski resorts nationwide already operating on federal lands to pursue summer recreation activities. The law updated the National Forest Ski Permit Act of 1986, which limited mountain recreation to only alpine and Nordic skiing.
The Forest Service will gather and assess submitted comments but March 21 and consider any outstanding objections or concerns personnel believe were not previously addressed in the Draft EIS. The next step would be the release of the Final EIS and a Draft Record of Decision (ROD) — with it, coming another 45-day comment period — both anticipated in the late summer or early fall of this year.
Last would be the release of a Final ROD. If everything goes smoothly, that could be expected by November or December of 2016. After that, it’s full speed ahead for Arapahoe Basin’s enhancement plan.
“The Basin is a wonderful, wonderful place,” said Henceroth, who has worked for the ski area in various management capacities since 1988. “We’ve been really busy for about 15 years, doing something notable almost every single summer. This project makes sense. We’re not doubling the number of skiers, and only increasing in capacity by about 360 skiers. We’re adding terrain and really hoping to do a nice job keeping the ski quality and experience high — and even higher now.”