Keystone and Breckenridge are working on their six-packs this summer.
On May 9, the Dillon Ranger District issued two decision memos for summer ski area construction at both of the Vail Resorts-owned properties. Along with several smaller projects, including a storage facility on Peak 7, Breck will replace the Falcon Chair four-person chairlift with a new-and-improved six-person chairlift. The resort will also upgrade its communications systems infrastructure.
At Keystone, the biggest summer project is replacing the four-person Montezuma Chair with a six-pack, which will be the resort's second. Other approved upgrades include renovations on Labonte's Smokehouse and the Spring Dipper ski trail, plus communication upgrades like Breck.
"The decision to approve these projects on both of the ski areas will result in upgrading infrastructure, which will improve the recreational opportunities and facilities at both resorts," district ranger Bill Jackson said in a U.S. Forest Service release.
Construction at Breck and Keystone is expected to begin this summer — Breck even said "no" to uphill access this spring, citing construction concerns with no construction timeline — and both approved lift replacements within the resorts' special use permit boundaries. Several bike trails at the Keystone Bike Park and Peak 10 at Breck will be closed during the summer for construction. Dates and details weren't available at press time.
All summer projects, including both chairlift replacements, were approved after a standard public comment period and vetting process, Jackson said, which included impacts on relevant resources like water, soil, recreation, botany and wildlife. The complete decision memos for Breckenridge and Keystone, including comments, are available online at FS.USDA.gov.
Public input was light, Jackson said, with only one or two people writing to express doubts about the dangers of more people crowding six-packs — and the slopes.
"The commenter indicated that the upgraded lift may increase the likelihood of collisions, as there are several ski trails merging at the entrance trail to this lift, and if lift lines are long there is only one trail that a skier can use to exit the lift line, and that trail leads to a catwalk that is heavily used," forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams wrote in the Keystone decision. "Additionally, the commenter noted that there is not enough area at the base of this lift to enlarge the maze in the loading area."
Jackson agrees, but he also believes six-person chairlifts will ease congestion at mousetraps like the Montezuma Chair maze.
3 LEVELS, 3 IMPACTS
In the eyes of the Forest Service, how do chairlift replacements and upgraded cell towers differ from a sprawling expansion like The Beavers at Arapahoe Basin?
It comes down to scope. As Jackson explains, all resort upgrades fall into three categories under the National Environmental Policy Act: Categorical Exclusion, or CE projects; Environmental Assessment, or EA projects; and Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS projects.
This summer's projects at Keystone and Breck fall under the CE category, which Jackson says is the lowest rung on the NEPA ladder. Both lifts will follow the same paths as their four-pack predecessors, with minimal impacts to nearby terrain. A CE analysis takes several months — the resorts first submitted applications in September 2016 — and Jackson noted these are the first Summit County chairlift replacement requests he's seen in his tenure of three years.
"Every year the ski areas propose new projects that are a lower level of analysis, like routine maintenance and replacements, and that's what these fall under," Jackson said of the six-pack upgrades. "Because there was already a lift there and alignment was made, a higher level of impact study had already been done. We won't duplicate a higher level study if it's already been done."
The next level, EA, is done for large-scale projects that don't require major changes to the natural landscape. Examples include the new alpine coaster at Copper Mountain, Jackson said, along with snowmaking upgrades under Super Bee Chair and construction for Weber Hut, the newest addition to the Summit Huts system. These can take anywhere from one year to several years.
The highest level, EIS, covers sprawling expansions like Peak 6 at Breck and The Beavers at A-Basin, both of which required trail cutting and brand-new lift installation. In A-Basin's case, The Beavers proposal took nearly a decade from start to finish when construction begins this summer.