Pushing the Boundaries

In Crested Butte in 2009, the U.S. Forest Service denied the resort’s proposal to expand to nearby Snodgrass Mountain. It was the first time the agency outright denied a Colorado ski resort’s request for expansion. Proponents hoped that creating more intermediate runs would turn around Crested Butte’s declining visitor numbers. Opponents, led by the Friends of Snodgrass Mountain, which was formed to thwart development plans, said expansion on the mountain didn’t equate to a better quality of life in the community, citing environmental concerns as their primary objection.

Those against the expansion were so vocal that the Forest Service nixed the proposal without even requiring an environmental review.

In Montana, the opposite occurred in 2008. Bridger Bowl’s plans to build a lift that would open up 311 acres of expert skiing and riding terrain in a backcountry area known as Slushman’s were incredibly well-received. Locals saw it as a way to get faster, safer access to the above-treeline terrain they craved on big powder days. And the truly hardcore just go farther out  since the new lift drops skiers off at glide level to the ridgeline for a quick hike up to the wild terrain on Saddle Peak.

“People were just as excited about the expansion then as they are now—they absolutely love it, and ski the snot out of it,” said Bozeman resident Chris Ennis.

The community’s warm reception came from a consensus that Bridger Bowl was in desperate need of more advanced terrain. The resort had not expanded in 30 years, but the locals’ skill sets had. Plus, there is no resort town and lodging industry at the base of Bridger Bowl (Bozeman is the nearest,16 miles away), so locals didn’t share Breck residents’ concerns about flooding an already tapped out town with more visitors drawn by the expansion.

Also unlike Breck, Bridger Bowl is a non-profit. “We expand because we need to expand, not because there are any hidden agendas over profit,” said Douglas Wales, the resort’s sales and marketing director.

Hidden Agendas and Hope

Hidden agendas, and some not-so-hidden, are a big part of the contention in Breckenridge. Some proponents have accused so-called environmentalists of overdramatizing the green impact in order to promote their real objective: the selfish preservation of their sacred sidecountry—terrain, including a sweet bowl, that would be turned into groomers if Peak 6 were developed. At the same time, some opponents suspect that the resort has its eye on the dollar more than the skier experience, claiming that above-treeline terrain expansion on Peak 6 wouldn’t really serve intermediate skiers, as the resort claims, since those types of skiers aren’t used to the extreme conditions at that elevation, like high winds and freezing temperatures. But it would serve to increase real estate value at the mammoth resort-invested properties over on that side of the ski area.

Despite infighting, there’s still hope for a happy ending, or at least a compromise. An alternative to the Peak 6 expansion was proposed following the first draft of the EIS and is currently being considered alongside the original by the Forest Service. Known as “Alternative 3” (Alternative 1 is to do nothing, and Alternative 2 is the original proposal), or “Peak 6 Light,” the plan looks to increase comfortable carrying capacity by making improvements to the existing lifts and trail systems, and proposes a more limited expansion—97 acres north of Peak 7 in an area dubbed Peak 6-and-½, to be accessed by a new four- or six-person chairlift that stays beneath the treeline.

“This accomplishes all the same visitor experience enhancements that Vail Resorts was hoping for, and then some, considering that it keeps to true intermediate terrain,” said Hollinshead.

Breckenridge’s Stewart said Vail Resorts is confident that Peak 6 will be a welcome addition, but can’t yet speak to the feasibility of that addition or to the reception of Peak 6 Light. “At this point, it is all dependent on the final EIS and the Forest Service’s decision. And we don’t know how long that will take.”

Meanwhile, some locals, particularly small business owners like Mazlish, think that everyone may be missing the point. The bigger issue is Vail Resorts’ management of the mountain, he argues. He feels a lot of the concern regarding overcrowding and expansion stems from mismanagement, particularly surrounding the 2005 expansion in response to demand for better access to groomed bowl skiing above the treeline (sound familiar?).

“They put in the Imperial Lift, but when that lift doesn’t open until 10:30 a.m. because Vail Resorts doesn’t want to pay avalanche control overtime to get in early on a powder morning, lift lines are going to get backed up,” he says. Building a new chair to a new bowl on a new peak isn’t going to fix that process glitch. “It’s just a Band-Aid.”

In the meantime, Peak 6 is open right now, as long as you want to skin up there with locals like Jeffrey Bergeron.

Jayme Moye is the managing editor of Elevation Outdoors.

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