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What will White River’s new plan do to us?

Article by Allen Best

Forest Management – February 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

THERE ARE CHANGES proposed for the woodlands to the north. In the last decade the land has been increasingly used, abused and overrun. Now, according to the Forest Service, some of it could use a rest.

Whether the White River National Forest will actually get that rest — and whether changes in forest usage in Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties w

Over The River and Through The Woods

Lately, the I-70 corridor has had heartburn. The cause of that heartburn is the White River National Forest.

It’s a huge thing, the 11th largest in the nation. Starting at the Eisenhower Tunnel, or at Hoosier Pass, you can drive solidly for three and a half hours, never leaving pavement nor sight of the 2.3-million acre forest. The White River National Forest is the front yard and back yard for the greatest amalgamation of ski areas outside of the Alps. It covers 80 percent of the land in Summit County, about the same in Pitkin County, and 64 percent of the land in Eagle County.

Since 1985 — the last time the Forest Service adopted a comprehensive management plan for the White River — recreational use has doubled. Mountain bike use has grown 214 percent. No one really knows how many more ATVs there are, but now there are many, and they go everywhere.

The White River cannot sustain another 15 years of unrestrained recreational use, the Forest Service says. So it proposes to draw a line on bigger and bigger ski areas, on more and more motorcycle and ATV trails, and on backcountry ski huts, and even mountain bike use.

This talk has had concerned citizens twitching in recent months. Hikers heralded it as “courageous,” snowmobilers snorted that it’s “an outrage.” Colorado’s Republicans in Congress harumphed in unison. The ski industry yelped like thumped hounds.

It’s nothing nearly so bold. The hollering exaggerates the pain. Take those outraged snowmobilers. While they do lose 56% of the terrain, they lose virtually no roads. They lose canyons, avalanche slopes, and the like. They seem more worried by precedent than actual loss.

The grief of others is likewise exaggerated. Beaver Creek’s top guy warned that the cross-country ski area there would be closed by the Forest Service plan. The Forest Service had screwed up the paperwork, but skeptics think his anguish was more genuinely a reaction to any plan that would prevent turning the cross-country ski area into downhill ski trails. Those trails, perhaps not coincidentally, would lead to an expected 100 high-end homes in a gated community at Arrowhead, “Vail’s private address.”

In fact, the new plan allows some continued expansion for the ski areas, but only within the areas “zoned” for expansion 15 years ago. Aspen hasn’t been growing much, and it isn’t complaining. Vail complains, but in fact, it’s the continent’s largest ski area, and it’s now getting the biggest expansion ever in U.S. ski history. It’s set.

Summit County’s ski areas have squawked the most. They’re closest to 2.4 million people in the Denver metropolitan area, a population projected to expand by yet another million people within 20 years. The Forest Service says the land “zoned” for expansion will accommodate annual growth of only 1% in the next 15 years, compared to the expected growth of 2.%. The result: higher prices, more crowding, and less powder.

Ironically, that’s exactly what has occurred when the ski areas there had pretty much carte blanche.

In theory, 22 miles of roads each year would be “decommissioned.” However, the existing forest plan called for 16 miles per year to be closed, and in fact, only 5 miles per year were closed. It takes money to close roads.

“Closed” signs are usually posted to the side of closed roads. Putting them in the middle just means they get run over. Gates and obliteration are usually more effective.

The greatest losers in the White River National Forest would be mountain bikers. Currently, everything outside of wilderness is open to them. With this new plan, they must stick to roads and designated trails. Mountain bikers in Aspen embrace the plan, and Summit County bikers largely are coming to terms with it — after agreement from the Forest Service to jostle some of the designated routes. Vail-area bikers have been most recalcitrant, asking why they should be treated any differently than pedestrian or horseback riders. In fact, documented effects on wildlife may be fewer, but are assumed because bikers cover much more ground more quickly.

You can bet the forest plan won’t be adopted as now proposed.

You can also bet that environmental groups will use the letter of now ancient federal laws that insist upon protection for wildlife, big and small, in the face of recreation. The only thing that could snarl this scenario is if Sen. Ben Campbell and Rep. Scott McInnis can delay the plan until George W. Bush is elected president. Ironically, plan opponents have insinuated loudly that the crimp on recreation comes from Washington, while at the same time they’re encouraging Washington to wage their war.

Back In God’s Country

What does it all mean for the Upper Arkansas Valley, the Gunnison Country, South Park and the San Luis Valley? Will disaffected four-wheelers, motorcycle riders, and others troop down from the I-70 corridor to invade their highlands?

No. This is a battle more about principle than real pain. Even if the plan is adopted, 1,700 miles of road and 1,500 miles of trails will remain open to motorized users. Outside of wilderness, there are few places more than a mile from a road. The McInnis crowd talks about “drive-by forest” but the reality is that it is, and has been, a “drive-in” forest.” A very few people are making a lot of noise. Snowmobiles do lose more ground, but there are huge tracts left to them, such as on the Flat Tops outside of Dotsero. It’s the principle-and-precedent thing.

Same thing for mountain bikes. Compared to Denver-area mountain bike trails, those of Summit County are nearly deserted. In fact, most of those being closed are redundant or dead-end trails. Even in Vail, the leading mountain biker objects mainly as a matter of principle, not because of real grief about potential loss of trails. It’s the principle-and-precedent thing.

You might see more mountain bikers around Leadville, but that may have more to do with the continued growth of mini-cities along I-70 and a desire to go out and see some new country. And perhaps because Leadville, Salida and Westcliffe have become more tourist-oriented and now offer more shops and amenities for visitors.

FURTHER, don’t expect immediate impacts from the White River forest plan upon the smaller ski areas of Central Colorado. First, the plan isn’t adopted yet.

The mega-companies and their minions have been trooping to Denver and to Washington to plead their case, pulling out the heavy artillery. And the administration of Gov. Bill Owens has thus far been toeing the line of economic development. His man for natural resources, Greg Walcher, devoted most of a Sept. 22 letter warning that an economic collapse of the fastest-growing counties in the state could happen if the forest plan is adopted as presented.

Also, the decision-maker for this forest plan is Lyle Laverty, the Denver-based regional forester, who has a renowned record of partnerships with recreational businesses. So it will be shocking if the Forest Service holds the line on the downhill ski areas, particularly in Summit County.

But even if it did, limiting Beaver Creek’s expansion wouldn’t result in Monarch sprouting a profusion of detachable quad lifts, and it might not make much difference at Ski Cooper.

To understand why, we need to look once again at the I-70 corridor and the ski business, to get the bigger picture.

The resorts of I-70 became robust as the baby boom generation got adventurous and affluent. Growth from 1970 to 1980 skyrocketed, then slowed to a crawl in the ’90s. What happened? Odds are that you’re one of those baby booming skiers, with knees creaking. Too, kids have taken time.

Nationally, the volume of downhill skiing has stagnated for 15 years. Yet the I-70 resorts mostly grew.

It’s been the decade of the megaresorts. They’ve reinvested in their product. Copper Mountain may cost three times as much, but you can get in four to five times as many runs there than you can at Ski Cooper — because of the fast-moving detachable quad lifts. Vail and Beaver Creek grew 34 percent during the time of the current forest plan by pirating skiers from other resorts, even Aspen. And many resorts have marketed in foreign countries, where 80 percent of the world’s skiers live.

Growth in skier days has varied broadly at these ski resorts. Small ones, like Ski Sunlight, near Glenwood Springs, have sputtered along. In fact, nothing in the Aspen zone has grown much. At the other extreme, Breckenridge has grown 50 percent in visitor days during the last 15 years; last winter it ended Vail’s long-held claim tenure as the Western Hemisphere’s busiest resort.

The ski areas, in objecting ferociously to the White River plan, said it’s too inflexible to accommodate another boom. After the demographic dud of Gen X, the echo boom generation (a/k/a generation Y) is arriving in nearly identical numbers as their parents. Colorado’s Denver metropolitan population is predicted to increase by another million people. And the quasi-cities of the I-70 corridor could double in the next 20 years as well-heeled boomers settle into retirement in amenity-filled surroundings.

However, the Forest Service also is taking the attitude — a fairly revolutionary one — that it isn’t obligated to grow the revenues for the ski areas.

ONCE AGAIN, what does this heartburn of the I-70 corridor mean for Central Colorado?

I see little effect on Ski Cooper. It just doesn’t have the wherewithal to join the big leagues. True, an expansion being studied would add 47 acres of upper-level terrain to balance the existing 385 acres of beginner and intermediate terrain. That’s still not much expert terrain, however, since Ski Copper would need lots more steeps, and just plain lots more terrain, and possibly a bigger, wider highway to compete.

Ski Cooper’s Joseph Fox has no illusions, though. He hopes a modest addition of diversity will attract a few more Front Rangers and a few more Kansans to the resort. He projects the average 66,000 skier/rider days of recent years could grow to 105,000. For Leadville, that kind of expansion would directly yield a couple of jobs paying $35,000 a year and a lot of lower-paying jobs, and put a little more commerce on Harrison Avenue. First, though, financially strapped Lake County must secure $4 million.

Crested Butte could see greater ripples from curtailment of ski area expansions on the White River. There’s a reasonably good airport at Gunnison, and a healthy sized and growing bed base at Crested Butte. The resort has self-indulgent eccentricity about it that visitors might call quaint, and all indications are that the domestic market — fickle and trendy as it is — wants more earthiness in the ski product at a time when the I-70 resorts are starting to look too much like home.

And finally, the Callaway family, owners of Crested Butte, have a green light for a major ski area expansion, and are said to be eager to find a suitable buyer. Either Vail Resorts Inc. or Intrawest (operator of Copper) could leverage the resort and, of great importance, turn the real estate. Skiing, you see, is an amenity for real-estate sales. Cheap grandfather clocks used to be the draw, but now it’s skiing.

THAT TAKES US TO Monarch, which seems to limp along year after year. It has wonderful skiing, and now even a quad lift, the better to satisfy a world in a hurry (and in my book,the ruin of skiing). But I don’t see throngs in the future because of curtailed expansion along I-70. Why?

First, the highways to the Front Range are too difficult. Second, the assets of a destination resort are too scattered. The bed base along Highway 50 in Salida and the charming ambiance of F Street are too far from the ski slopes. If somebody had the money to pull together a major resort around a hot springs, Salida/Poncha/Buena Vista could become Colorado’s “fiercely guarded secret.”

One absorbing figure is that the median annual income for skiers on the White River is $90,000. The spillover from that figure is interesting to contemplate.

Clearly, the I-70 counties are having severe indigestion. Colorado, in fact, hasn’t brawled about a forest issue to this extent since 1907, when Gifford Pichot himself, Teddy Roosevelt’s man to manage the forest lands, had to hop a train to Denver and stare down the insurgents. You know that this donnybrook will somehow ripple across Tennessee Pass and down the Arkansas Valley.

The greatest spillover will be the blast of rhetoric. Revision of the management plans for the Pike-San Isabel National Forest has begun. Soon, you’ll also be able to argue the merits of a drive-by forest vs. a drive-in forest.

Allen Best has edited newspapers in the ski resorts of Winter Park and Vail, and now lives in Arvada. He’s supposed to get his college degree this may, 25 years after dropping out.