A resort expansion pits Colorado skiers versus environmentalists

Posted: Oct 20, 2017

When I first decided to attend law school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, everyone immediately asked me the same question. How often do you ski? I sheepishly replied that I don’t go that often, but maybe I would take up the sport now that I am in the heart of ski country. That was a complete lie. Every time I have been skiing all I do is think about getting my feet out of those hellish boots and that I would much rather be enjoying a warm beverage in the lodge. Although careening down a hill trying to avoid small children doesn’t sound like much fun to me, it is a favorite winter activity of many Coloradoans.

Eldora Mountain Resorts
provides skiers with 49 alpine trails to traverse and offers beautiful views of the continental divide. The resort sees an average of 271,000 visitors annually and those numbers have been steadily increasing. Although less glamorous than the larger resorts found along the I-70 corridor, Eldora totes being Boulder County’s only ski resort. With an estimated 30% of the population in the Front Range participating in skiing or snowboarding (the national average hovers around 4%), its vicinity to a large number of avid skiers helps keep attendance high. Students at CU can ski all morning and make it back in time for their afternoon classes—at least that is what they tell mom and dad. 

The resort is popular amongst some locals, but many passionate skiers are not without their complaints about this small mountain getaway. Most of the skiing terrain is geared toward beginners, which can make some trails dangerous when populated with novices.  The wind can also be quite vicious; especially when swaying in the wind on one of their out-dated ski lifts. In response to some of these complaints, the resort has developed a Master Plan to update and expand its facilities to help attract more skiers. The proposed expansion would occur on a combination of private land and public land owned by the United States Forest Service (USFS).

Eldora has submitted its Master Plan to the USFS and the agency will soon investigate the possible effects of implementing the project. The agency will then draft an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which will detail the possible adverse effects of the expansion and inform their decision on how to proceed. The USFS is currently in the scoping process to gain a better understanding of the public’s concerns and what issues to address when drafting the EIS.

The plan calls for the construction of new intermediate and expert level trails on 105 acres of USFS land, as well as an 80 acre addition of new gladed terrain. Glade skiing, also known as tree skiing, involves weaving your way through partially thinned forests, which is not for the faint of heart. Gladed terrain doesn’t require complete tree clearing like traditional trails, but these areas normally see a removal of about 10-40% of tree cover. Several existing trails will also be widened to accommodate more skiers and increase safety. Eldora hopes the upgrades will draw more locals to the resort and keep them coming back.

In order to get these additional skiers up the mountain, the resort plans to update and increase their network of ski lifts. The improved six-person lifts will be faster and more stable in windy conditions. The new trails would necessitate new road construction and an increase in the resorts snow-making capabilities. Eldora is also seeking to expand parking and guest service facilities, including a new mountain-top restaurant for mid-day snacking. The details of the plan, complete with maps of the new trails and lifts, can be found on the resorts website.

Eldora’s plan has some skiers salivating, but not everyone is rejoicing over the news. The plan would shift the current boundaries of the ski area 1,000 feet closer to Middle Boulder Creek, which is a source of Boulder’s water supply. This has prompted the formation of the Middle Boulder Creek Coalition, a combination of environmental advocacy groups that are concerned about how the boundary shift will impact the area. The organization argues that it will ruin the recreational experience for cross-country skiers that traverse the nearby Fourth of July road and will interrupt an important wildlife corridor utilized by moose, elk, beavers, and owls. The organization does not oppose the entire plan, but does not support relocating the boundary closer to the creek. The resort claims that expanding the boundary is a crucial element of their plan and that the negative impact on wildlife could be controlled.

These concerns will certainly be addressed in the EIS and more information will be gathered to determine the extent of the plan's impact on wildlife. I do not doubt there will be some detrimental effect on animals, but I am skeptical that the .2 mile extension is in a crucial wildlife corridor; unless there has been a steady increase in elk traveling to Nederland for a slice of Backcountry Pizza. All development has an adverse affect, but the question is how much is too much? The EIS should provide some insight into how critical this habitat is to the local flora and fauna.

An issue that I have not heard discussed is whether an increase in snow-making operations will impact the watershed. Artificial snow requires the use of a large amount of water and can have disastrous effects on mountain riparian ecosystems. The Master Plan states that about 100 additional acres of land will need artificial snow cover. Eldora claims that the resort has the diversionary rights to meet their increased water demands, but it does not state whether Middle Boulder Creek has sufficient capacity to lose the extra water and still sustain a healthy habitat. With drought concerns running high throughout the country, the EIS should address where the water is being drawn from, how it will impact local water supplies, and what will happen in the event of a severe drought.

Artificial snow also contains additives, which could reach the creek due to the boundary shift. Studies have shown that the impact on humans and vegetation from artificial snow is minimal. However, certain biologically-based additives, when introduced into a watershed, can increase the water’s nutrient base. That sounds like a good thing, but the increased nutrients could feed harmful bacteria that could impact aquatic life and human health. The plan does not specify what additives Eldora uses to make their snow. The USFS should investigate this thoroughly to ensure the health and safety of those that swim, fish, and drink from the creek is taken into account. A plan should be implemented to mitigate runoff and ensure the resort only uses additives that have been proven safe.

Another concern for me is the use of public land to construct a new 20,000 square foot mountain-top restaurant. I understand the need to increase facilities to accommodate additional guests, but the resort is already planning to expand its privately owned base area facilities and its existing on-mountain restaurant. The ecological footprint of the new facility would be small, but I would not support a single plant being removed from public land when skiers already have four easily accessible dining options at the resort. How many places do guests need to get their 8 dollar burnt hamburgers? One study suggests the majority of skiers choose their destinations because of the quality of the slopes, while only 2% stated that lodge facilities were the major influence on their decision. Using public lands to encourage outdoor recreation and increase skier safety is important; slinging overpriced unhealthy slices of pizza is not.

Proponents of the plan argue that it could benefit the local economy by increasing tourism and keep local skiers close to home instead of heading to Breckinridge and Vail to get their skiing fix. Many believe the deeply entrenched ski culture should be nurtured and encouraged.  The new trails will make the beginner slopes less dangerous for families looking to initiate their young ones into the skiing community. Who knows, maybe it could even entice folks like me to slap some planks on our feet and go barreling down a mountain of fresh man-made chemical snow—then again, probably not.

As with every plan for development, there are benefits and drawbacks. I would encourage all to reserve judgment until the plan has been thoroughly investigated. The current scoping process is designed to allow citizens to voice their concerns now in order to guide the USFS’s review of the Master Plan. The USFS is accepting comments through August 31st. The EIS will take about one-year to complete, which will then begin a new comment period that will allow the public to respond to the agencies findings before a final decision is made. Sign up for the Redlodge Clearinghouse bi-weekly newsletter to receive updates on Eldora’s proposal and other issues affecting the west.

Learn more about the Eldora Mountain Resort Master Plan and leave a comment for the USFS by August 31st.

~ Brian O'Neill

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