Feds favor alpine coaster, amenities at Snowmass
The Aspen Times
A summer plan that features new hiking and biking trails but also opens the national forest at Snowmass to new uses such as an alpine coaster is favored for approval by the U.S. Forest Service.
The White River National Forest released a Final Environmental Impact Statement Tuesday along with a draft Record of Decision on Aspen Skiing Co.’s summer use proposal for Snowmass Ski Area. The decision outlines Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliam’s selected alternative and rationale for approval.
If no objections are filed over a 45-day period from the publication of a legal notice on March 17, the decision will be finalized by late spring, the Forest Service said.
“The proposed projects would add variety to the mountain biking and hiking trail networks — two existing recreation opportunities with established popularity — while also creating developed recreation opportunities that would allow additional forest users to interact with National Forest System lands,” the environmental study said.
Skico wants to construct the amenities this summer and have them operating in 2018, according to Skico Vice President for Planning and Development David Corbin. He told the Snowmass Village Town Council this week that work would start as soon as the snow melts with the goal of having everything constructed by winter. The project has a price of about $8 million, he said.
A key component of Skico’s plan is an alpine coaster — where bobsled-like cars travel on tubular tracks in the forest. Skico wants to construct the ride between the Gunner’s View and Sandy Park ski trails for use in summer and winter.
Riders control their speed through a braking system, and an automatic brake keeps the cars below a specified speed. An electric-power lift system would haul the cars to the top of the track.
“The track would be a closed-loop system with a vertical rise/descent of approximately 400 feet and a seven-to-nine minute round-trip ride,” the EIS said. The downhill section of track would be 3,300 feet long while the uphill stretch would be 2,300 feet.
If Snowmass’ proposal wins approval, it would be the fourth alpine coaster approved in the White River National Forest. Vail Mountain opened its coaster last summer. Breckenridge and Copper Mountain have approvals but haven’t added the amenities yet.
Critics contend the coasters are too much like an amusement ride and don’t belong in national forests.
“We spent more time talking about alpine coasters than any other [component] in the suite of proposed activities,” Fitzwilliams said.
The Forest Service believes coasters help diversify options for visitors to the national forest while potentially inspiring them to try other activities in the outdoors.
“Mountain coasters are part of a suite of activities that may introduce new national Forest visitors to outdoor recreation and nature through a variety of settings, experiences and activities,” the FIS said.
The Forest Service will allow nighttime as well as daytime use of the coaster, even though the EIS acknowledges that could have a detrimental effect on wildlife. The proposed approval would allow the coaster to have lights. Corbin said Skico is considering very limited nighttime operations. It holds special Ullr Nights at Elk Camp in summer and winter.
Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service and Skico talked through numerous issues even before the summer plan was proposed. Certain ideas were eliminated, such as running the Elk Camp chairlift to the top of the ski area at night, where wildlife activity is greatest during evenings. Activity will be focused within walking distance of the upper terminal of the Elk Camp Gondola. In addition, the emphasis will be to blend the amenities into the landscape and forest.
“Our intention is to make that experience one that is really in the trees,” Corbin said.
“We know people really value that cozy, natural feel of Elk Camp,” Fitzwilliams said.
Summertime visitors at Snowmass Ski Area would surge from 25,000 per year currently to 45,000 within five to 10 years of completing the amenities, according to the Forest Service study. However, a “large quantity” of those visitors will already be in the Roaring Fork Valley, the study said. Only 5 percent are expected to be new visitors to the area.
The alpine coaster is expected to be the biggest draw with up to 750 visitors per day. Summer visits would spur an estimated 540 vehicle trips on the typical weekend day or a 13 percent increase to Snowmass Village, the study said.
The increased activity would also add 34 full-time-equivalent jobs in direct employment over the course of the summer.
The Final EIS and draft Record of Decision are available for download on the White River National Forest website at http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=49057.
Objections, including attachments, must be filed via mail, fax, email, hand-delivery, express delivery, or messenger service (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., excluding holidays) to: Reviewing Officer, Brian Ferebee, Regional Forester, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region, 740 Simms, Golden, CO 80401; FAX: (303) 275-5134, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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