The Land Beyond: Crystal Peak looms in the background as skiers traverse Peak 6 into the more committing lines of the Inside Corner and North Chute in the Breckenridge backcountry. Photo: Liam Doran/liamdoranphotography.com
During his more than 30 years living in Breckenridge, city council member Jeffrey Bergeron has explored plenty of terrain in the Ten Mile Range. Like most long-term residents of mountain towns, he spends a lot of time outdoors. Nature, the environment, these are the things that sustain him. And of course, skiing. But suddenly, Bergeron has found his two life passions at odds.
Since a proposed resort expansion project heated up this spring, Bergeron, along with other Breck stakeholders, has been grappling with tough questions concerning development. Installing a new lift means clearing trees, but more terrain means shorter lift lines and a less crowded mountain. Where do you draw the line between opening up a mountain for more skiing and protecting its wild places?
The debate has pitted Breckenridge parent company Vail Resorts against environmentalists and some locals, who fear an unsustainable influx of tourists into town. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the public lands leased by Vail Resorts, will make the final decision.
“I believe that everyone involved is truly committed to this mountain and this community,” said Bergeron. “The challenge is that there are some drastically dissenting opinions and conflicting agendas among the various groups.”
Thin the Crowds
The area under scrutiny is Peak 6, an untouched section of sidecountry adjacent to Breckenridge’s four other developed mountains. Vail Resorts’ proposal would build a six-person lift on the peak, opening up an additional 550 acres of lift-served and hike-to terrain. The expansion includes building a 150-person lodge and a warming hut for ski patrol.
The land in contention is within the resort’s existing permit of 5,700 acres, of which 3,100 are currently in operation. The expansion is critical, according to Vail Resorts, and that’s an opinion supported by many Coloradoans. Breckenridge Resort has measured its comfortable carrying capacity at 14,920 guests per day. Yet, during peak season, the resort sees more than 16,000 skiers 25 percent of the time. This equates to overcrowding just about every weekend. The expansion project would increase the daily comfortable carrying capacity to 16,020.
“Peak 6 is the most important project we can undertake at Breckenridge to enhance the on-mountain guest experience by adding a significant amount of terrain and lift capacity for intermediate skiers,” said Kristen Petitt Stewart, Senior Communications Manager at Breckenridge Resort.
Breckenridge is the most popular resort in the U.S., with 1.6 million visitors per year. Six other Colorado resorts receive upwards of 1 million guests each year, but they’re all larger than Breckenridge, so the skiers are more spread out on the mountain.
“On powder days, Breck is a mess,” said Jared Mazlish, owner of Fat-ypus skis and 22-year resident. “Everyone’s fighting to get up above the treeline, and the liftlines start to feel like big city traffic jams.” Mazlish feels the expansion is necessary and that growth is inevitable at a successful resort. “It’s best planned for, not fought against,” he said.
Thin the Trees?
Expansion, no matter how justified, raises a red flag with most environmentalists and the Breckenridge community is particularly sensitive, especially since Summit County was hit hard by the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Some experts estimate that when all is said and done, Breck will have lost 90- to 95-percent of its Lodgepole pine trees to beetle kill. “It’s hard to be okay with clearing 70 acres of healthy spruce and fir on Peak 6 when we’re losing so many pine trees involuntarily,” Bergeron said.
He and wife Ellen Hollinshead initiated the Breck Open Space Fund fifteen years ago (the town has since purchased more than 18,000 acres for conservation and preservation). The pair claims loss of animal habitat is a major concern of the expansion project. Canadian lynx, previously extinct in Colorado, and reintroduced in 1999, have been spotted in Summit Country adjacent to the ski area. And while experts have contested whether those cats are “transient” and just moving through, or sticking around as “residents,” Hollinshead argues that, either way, clearing out 61 football fields worth of trees on Peak 6 isn’t going to help them survive.
The Forest Service requested an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to help guide its decision, which was commissioned by Vail Resorts. The first draft was published in 2008, followed by a revision this past June. A public 45-day comment period followed. During that time, residents voiced their environmental concerns about the mountain and fears that the expansion would draw even more tourists to a town already overtaxed during peak season.
“There’s already about 20 days in the season when the town is just maxed out,” said resident PJ Perrinjaquet, MD, a family physician and the president of High Country Health Care. “The restaurants are full, all the lodging is booked and the traffic is terrible.” Unfortunately, increasing carrying capacity on the mountain doesn’t increase the city of Breckenridge’s ability to house and feed guests.
Same Story, Different Mountain
The polarizing debate over on-mountain development that has been antagonizing the normally laid-back mountain town of Breckenridge is not a new conundrum. Nor is the issue cut-and-dry, as outcomes from other expansion proposals have differed drastically from one mountain to the next.