Balancing People’s Needs and the Environment: Ski Areas


Well, we’ve been talking about fuels reduction and travel management, here’s an op-ed by Bob Berwyn on the Eldora Ski Expansion. It just gives you a flavor of some of the other uses of the usual, I don’t agree with everything Bob says, but he always raises interesting points that are based on observing real things happening on the ground. And I certainly agree that appeals and litigation are not the best way to work things out.

Note: I worked in appeals and litigation on some ski area projects, in fact, I first “met” Harris Sherman when he was working as an attorney with the ski industry and he called about an appeal. I was around when our OGC folks developed guidelines to separate the proponent from the contractors working on the NEPA for projects. This was actually a result, not of a ski area expansion, but of a project I called “Reasonable Access for Unreasonable People.”

For those who might believe that the FS simply rubberstamps the ski industry’s proposals, I can only say “a series of signals are sent back and forth all the time between the FS and the ski area” and “Crested Butte.”

Eldora’s proposal, a relatively small project in a discrete geographic area, could become the model for a collaborative approach that focuses attention on the resources, and not the process.

There is precedent. In Breckenridge, town, county and ski industry officials hammered out a formal Memorandum of Understanding to address some of the concerns associated with the Peak 6 expansion. Similarly, the Forest Service participated in a rigorously facilitated negotiation over a proposed motorized recreation trail, eventually finding some common ground with nearby neighborhoods and towns that had bitterly opposed the plan early on.

Another example is a recently finalized deal between Denver Water and Trout Unlimited. Instead of lunging forward into an all-but-certain legal battle, the water bosses and fish lovers agreed to work together to closely monitor and mitigate the effects of new diversions from the Fraser River. If the plan works, conditions in the depleted stream will actually improve over the next few decades.

This is the key lesson for the sides lining up to do battle over the Eldora expansion plan: The Forest Service should invite environmental advocates, concerned neighbors, state and local officials and even federal environmental experts from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop an adaptive, restoration-based alternative that enables Eldora to meet growing demand, while at the same time resulting in long-term environmental improvements within the expansion area and on surrounding public and private lands.

Instead of settling for the least harmful alternative, the ski area, the Forest Service and local residents should aim high, striving for a plan with a long-term vision to actually improve the environment. If it sounds like a tall order, it is. You can see why some people prefer the lazy way, just letting the kabuki play out. But the end result of a front-loaded process would be infinitely preferable to years of legal squabbling that leave everyone frustrated.

Here’s what it would take: All parties would have to commit resources long-term to monitoring conditions on the ground, assessing impacts and developing new management actions to meet emerging issues. Boulder County already has considerable resources invested in protecting environmental assets, so it’s not hard to imagine the government partnering with the ski area to expand those efforts.

The ski area needs to — and probably does — consider the environmental sensibilities of its primary customer base and agree to a phased expansion approach. Making improvements in steps gives the monitoring program a chance to keep up and assess whether mitigation efforts are working. Approvals for subsequent expansion phases would be linked with meeting specific restoration goals.

The whole agreement needs to be wrapped up in a formal agreement like an Memorandum of Understanding and adopted as an enforceable provision in the Forest Service permit for the expansion. That makes everyone accountable and gives everyone a longterm stake in the outcome.

For its part, the Forest Service should also take seriously the Obama administration’s guidance on climate by developing a carbon-neutral version of the Eldora expansion plan that doesn’t result in any new greenhouse gas emissions. It may not be possible to immediately achieve a zero-emissions goal, but including a carbon-neutral version as a baseline would give the agency a chance to measure progress toward that goal.

Is there any way the ski area can harness some of those howling Eldora winds to generate electricity? Could Eldora help fund a long-term regional forest health program that would provide fuel for a biomass energy plant at the ski area?

Reasonable people working in a collaborative spirit with the goal of furthering the common good have achieved far more, so seeking a progressive solution to the vexing dilemma of ski area growth seems like a realistic path.

I’ve got to add that if more folks went to Eldora, from Denver, they would use less gas than going over 70 to the other resorts, plus fewer people on 70 mean everyone there uses less gas when it becomes a giant parking lot. Don’t know how this would or should enter the climate change considerations…

3 thoughts on “Balancing People’s Needs and the Environment: Ski Areas”

  1. They have been trying to expand the Mt Ashland ski area in Southern Oregon for like forever and cannot come to a consensus. Of course skiing isn’t as important to Southern Oregon as it is to Colorado, which might have a lot to do with lack of resolution. But hopefully efforts like this will lead to better ways to get projects done on public lands.

  2. I see some useful principles for forest planning here:

    “striving for a plan with a long-term vision to actually improve the environment”

    “All parties would have to commit resources long-term to monitoring conditions on the ground … ”

    “Approvals for subsequent expansion phases would be linked with meeting specific restoration (or conservation) goals.”

    “The whole agreement needs to be wrapped up in a formal agreement like a (forest plan) and adopted as an enforceable provision.”

  3. Hope someone is figuring out how to lock-in the cost of monitoring. Everyone agrees on the need to monitor, but the details of “who” and “what” and “who pays” always seems to be forgotten. All the original Forest Plans of the 80s included significant monitoring requirements that were not financed, so the monitoring was often not done, or partially done. Proper monitoring is expensive and monitoring is not sexy. So it gets short-changed. I suggest the proponents of the expansion deposit adequate, well thought-out plans and real dollars in escrow to ensure the bucks are there.


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