May 4, 1997
While Coloradans enjoyed an excellent ’96-’97 ski season, the year’s biggest news occurred light-years away from slopeside. Vail, the ski behemoth that turned the once placid Eagle Valley into “plastic Bavaria,” not only bought Summit County resorts Keystone and Breckenridge, but moved closer toward a massive expansion of its ski area. The U.S. Forest Service has issued draft amendments to the White River National Forest Plan that if finalized, would allow the expansion of Vail Ski Area into the Two Elk roadless area.
Opposition to “Super Vail” has been spearheaded by the Colorado Environmental Coalition, which provided the following information.
In August, 1996, the U.S. Forest Service approved the expansion of Vail Ski Area into the so-called Category III area south of the existing ski area. Much of this area is in the Two Elk Roadless Area, the only roadless area in the vicinity. The surrounding area is well-developed for human use (including I-70, the existing ski area, the towns of Vail and Minturn, and the Shrine Pass area). This leaves only the Two Elk area for wildlife to (or humans for that matter) experience solitude.
The Category III area has very high wildlife values in its existing state. Elk give birth each year in Tea Cup Bowl, where a chairlift and ski runs are proposed. Forest interior species (those needing continuous forest cover), such as marten, golden-crowned kinglet, olive-sided flycatcher and boreal owl, inhabit the area. Most importantly, one of the last populations of Canada lynx in Colorado resides in the area. Most of the confirmed and semi-confirmed sightings of lynx in Colorado in the last 40 years have occurred in or near the Two Elk area.
The proposed expansion would involve construction of four lifts and 885 acres of ski runs, 12.2 miles of service roads and a new restaurant. The Colorado Environmental Coalition believes this development would destroy or fragment most of the wildlife habitat in the area.
In October, 1996, several conservation groups and Eagle County residents appealed the approval of the expansion to the regional forester. In late November, the deputy partially upheld the appeal, requiring the White River National Forest to review its documentation of cumulative impacts to traffic, transportation, housing and wildlife, and to provide an opportunity for public comment on forest plan amendments that were issued in the U.S. Forest Service’s Record of Decision approving the expansion. The amendments were approved without prior public review, a violation of federal law, said the CEC. The review of cumulative impacts was completed in late February.
In 1984, the White River National Forest approved a forest plan containing numerous measures for protecting resources. However, three amendments are now needed in order for the Vail expansion to proceed. One would reduce the requirement that habitat for each wildlife species be maintained at 40 percent of potential capability. Currently, the habitat capability for lynx is as low as 8 percent in the area affected by the proposed project; overall, it would drop more if the project proceeds. The proposed amendment would lower the habitat capability standard to the level expected to exist after the expansion is constructed. This is absolutely intolerable, according to CEC, which is striving for no adverse modification of this habitat.
Another proposed amendment would reduce the visual quality standard for riparian (streamside) areas. This would allow more adverse alteration of the vegetation adjacent to Two Elk Creek, and would allow a restaurant to be constructed on the south side of the creek, even though it could more easily be built on the other side of Vail ski area near existing development, such as at the base of lift #21. Finally, an amendment would replace the existing numerical standard for maintaining deer and elk hiding cover with a vague standard that requires only enough “security cover” to allow for seasonal migration.
If forest plan standards are weakened every time a proposed project will not comply with them, then the standards are worthless, said the CEC.
The CEC is encouraging those opposed to the expansion to write to: Loren Kroenke, Holy Cross Ranger District, Box 190, Minturn, CO, 81654. Letters must be postmarked no later than May 19. CEC is advising letter-writers to include the following points in their correspondence:
- Opposition to all three amendments. Especially insist that the amendment reducing the habitat capability not be approved, as lynx could otherwise be exterminated from the area. Even if lynx no longer exist in the area, they could be reintroduced if the habitat remains in its current condition.
- State that amending the forest plan to fit a project is an extremely bad precedent. Tell the Forest Service to amend the project so it complies with the forest plan instead.
- State that Vail is big enough already. It does not need to get any bigger, especially at the expense of the last roadless area in the vicinity and its lynx habitat.
- Ask the Forest Service to amend the Forest Plan to remove the winter sports area prescription from the Two Elk area and assign a wildlife prescription instead.