Sunlight expansion plan hinges on Forest review, but streamlined process likely |

Sunlight expansion plan hinges on Forest review, but streamlined process likely

Don Berger, left, looks over maps of the Sunlight Mountain Resort expansion plan with ski area officials, General Manager Tom Hays, right, and Operations Manager Ross Terry, during a public meeting Tuesday night hosted by White River National Forest staffers.
John Stroud/Post Independent

A cursory review of Sunlight Mountain’s ski-area expansion plan — for which the U.S. Forest Service is considering a categorical exclusion under federal environmental laws — does not mean critical elements won’t be studied, according the agency’s new district ranger.

The small amount of public land that would be disturbed for the ski area expansion and new chair lift — less than 5 acres — qualifies Sunlight’s plans for the less-extensive review, according to Kevin Warner, the White River National Forest’s new Aspen-Sopris District ranger.

And, judging from the light attendance (less than a dozen people) at an open house Tuesday night in Glenwood Springs meant to answer any questions the public may have about the proposal, the project is not likely to generate any controversy.

“In a lot of projects similar to this, where it’s a small amount of ground disturbance within a special-use permit area, we will analyze that through categorical exclusion,” Warner explained.

Sunlight announced its plans last year for a $4 million expansion on the East Ridge portion of the ski area, including about 100 acres of new expert skiing terrain and a new fixed-grip quad chair lift serving expanded expert and intermediate terrain.

Some of that expanded terrain has already been cleared on privately owned portions of Sunlight Mountain. New runs to the east of the current ski area boundary, along with the new lift and a pit toilet would involve additional forest land within the already permitted area.

Warner said the plan will necessitate a wildlife and fish analysis, as well as historical and cultural surveys of the project area. Even under categorical exclusion, a formal “decision memo” from Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams would be issued, he said.

“If any extraordinary circumstances come up in that process, we can still say that we would need to go into a more in-depth analysis,” Warner said.

The handful of people who did show up at the Tuesday meeting were mostly curious about the new skiing terrain that would be made available, and the timeline for the new lift installation.

According to Sunlight General Manager Tom Hays, who was on hand for the meeting, once the final clearance is given by the Forest Service, more timber would be cleared this summer and fall, making way for the new lift to be installed after the 2020-21 ski season.

“If we can get that clearing done in the summer, that’s going to drive when we can actually install the lift,” Hays said.

“It also depends on snowfall next year and visitation,” he said, noting that this year’s numbers so far are up and the ski conditions are prime.

“We’re having a good season, and to be able to move forward with the expansion is going to really add some dimension to the ski area,” Hays said.

An informal public comment process remains open until Feb. 23, but that’s not to say comments won’t be taken after that time, Warner said.

This spring, forest officials will meet to go over the comments that are received, followed by field surveys in late spring or early summer, he said. “Once we do that, then we can move forward with a decision.”

Sunlight’s expansion plans do not include the coveted Williams Peak to the west of the existing ski area, though that does remain in the resort’s long-range master plan, Hays said.

“At some point we would like to expand in that direction,” he said. “But it’s not anything short term, at least not in the next five years.”

Sunlight has a little more than 2,400 acres of permitted forest land to operate the ski resort.

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