FRISCO, Colo. — After a few years of peace and quiet, the elk, owls, hawks and lynx living in the Tenmile Range near Breckenridge are once again scurrying for cover.
Ski industry juggernaut Vail Resorts is developing yet another area of relatively untouched forest, this time for the long-contested Peak 6 expansion.
Helicopters are carting in buckets of concrete for lift installations in the early morning hours, which is prime time for wildlife foraging. Trucks head out of town just after dawn, loaded with giant spruce and fir logs, as Breckenridge Ski Resort clear cuts about 68 acres of forest for new trails.
Soon, Colorado skiers and snowboarders will be inundated with ads for the new peak, which Vail Resorts says is needed to ease congestion at what has been the country’s busiest ski area the past few seasons.
The marketing has already started. On social media, Breckenridge is asking guests to suggest names for the trails, offering ski passes as the prize. Vail Resorts has never shied away from hyperbole: The company is touting the Peak 6 expansion as an historic moment, using the grandiose “Awaken your sixth sense” as a theme for the contest.
Resort officials said the contest has already elicited more than 1,000 responses.
The request for trail names, drew suggestions like “Locals’ Tears,” “Dankrupt,” “Trail of Lynx Tears,” “Destruction,” “Mo’ Money,” and “The Scummit.”
To its credit, the resort said it will leave the Facebook thread intact.
“The powerful nature of social media lies in its authenticity and transparency, and it is not unusual for users to express all kinds of opinions on our Facebook page,” spokesperson Kristen Petitt said via email. “To that end, it is our internal policy to not remove or edit posts or users unless they violate Facebook policy, such as being profane, or if they are harmful to others.”
According to Petitt, the response to the contest has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“The handful of negative or sarcastic remarks in no way deterred the general public from enthusiastically participating in this contest in a positive manner,” she said.
The flap over Peak 6 has been yet another iteration of the classic ski town battle, as corporate manifest destiny faces off against local self-determination. The end result shows that the once-individualistic Breckenridge is becoming a company town.
Critics claim the Forest Service has become an enabler for environmentally damaging expansions — nobody is disputing that the clear-cut trails on Peak 6 will displace some wildlife. The environmental study for the project clearly spells out the impacts, yet the agency couldn’t just say no.
“The Forest Service should really be embarrassed for itself, the way they put their thumb on the scale,” said Dave Rossi, who fought the expansion as a member of the Breckenridge Town Council. Along with other critics, Rossi said the agency bent over backwards to give Vail Resorts what it wanted at the risk of weakening protection for lynx, federally listed as a threatened species.
Peak 6 has been a local backcountry powder stash for decades, easily accessible from town and, in some parts at least, not too prone to major avalanches. As a result, local backcountry skiers were among the expansion’s most vocal critics from the start.
There also has been considerable support for the expansion, especially among some Breckenridge business owners, who said the project will help create a new buzz for the town, bringing more tourists to local shops and restaurants. Many skiers and snowboarders, excited to have a new swath of lift-served terrain, also chimed in with support.
Several local officials waffled about the expansion, saying they sympathized with constituent concerns before ultimately signing on the dotted line.
The history of the Peak 6 project is long and sordid, beginning with a behind-the-scenes land-use change by former USFS district ranger Rick Newton. The boundary between ski resort and the adjacent Nordic center (both on national forest land) was adjusted without any public scrutiny, setting the stage for the expansion. At the time, a fedeal Environmental Protection Agency official said it was unprecedented for the Forest Service to make that kind of change without public input.
The first round of public input on the project back in 2008 elicited about 200 critical comments, with only a handful of people supporting the project.
“I think that took the Forest Service by surprise. We had them kind of on the ropes at that point,” Rossi said.
Most locals were simply concerned about more growth, development and how it would impact the local environment and the quality of life. The general sentiment at the time was that Breckenridge was big enough and that the new terrain would simply draw more people to a town already bursting at the seams.
Many of those concerns were addressed by a community task force. Resort leaders, elected officials and members of the business community hashed out their differences and ultimately signed an agreement that included a few requirements dealing with some of the peripheral concerns a growing ski resort such as parking and childcare. But in the end, that agreement was watered down substantially and local officials grew weary of the process, Rossi said.
On the mountain, the new ski terrain would mean cutting into a huge area of healthy spruce-fir forest where the surrounding lodgepole stands all fell to bark beetle investigation. All the studies showed the project would threaten lynx, which the federal government is obligated to protect under the Endangered Species Act. Since the proposed expansion couldn’t be approved under existing Forest Service wildlife standards, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams amended the forest plan, much to the dismay of wildlife advocates.
Critics of the project appealed the August 2012 approval, and when the regional Forest Service office denied that bid, they considered a lawsuit, enlisting help from the University of Denver’s environmental law clinic. After weighing legal options, the opponents reached a deal, dropping their legal threat as Vail Resorts agreed to up its financial contribution to a forest conservation fund, with at least part of the money earmarked for improving lynx habitat across the wider region.
Echoes of the Vail arson attack
Although the Peak 6 protests waned peacefully, nobody has forgotten critics’ fury over the Category 3 (now Blue Sky Basin) expansion at Vail Mountain in the late 1990s. The battle between the ski company and environmentalists ended with a dangerous and costly arson attack that destroyed the Two Elk Lodge and damaged lifts and other facilities. With that attack in mind, resort officials discussed security concerns with the Forest Service and local law enforcement agencies, leading to a closure of the area around the Peak 6 project.
“There’s a security nexus to everything these days,” said Summit County Sheriff John Minor, confirming that the Vail-Category 3 connection came up in those talks.
Vail Resorts touts the Peak 6 expansion as a way to address congestion on some of the resorts most crowded trails and lifts. But skeptics have countered from the beginning of the process that the expansion won’t make a significant difference. Many critics said in their formal comments to the Forest Service that the resort should have focused on improving lifts and trails within the existing ski area footprint.
But for many skiers and boarders, upgrading an older chair isn’t nearly as sexy as skiing a new peak. Peak 6 is about marketing and increasing shareholder value, said Rossi. The Forest Service study for the project suggests the same thing, showing that the expansion ultimately will draw more people, leaving the ski area just as crowded.
In the short run, Peak 6 may help reduce skier traffic on some existing trails, according to Forest Service snow ranger Joe Foreman, who helped shepherd the project through the approval process. The design of the expansion will encourage people to ski laps on the new terrain, marginally reducing the number of people on adjacent trails.
And the modified trail design, with narrower runs divided by broad areas of forest, should help preserve some wildlife habitat functionality, Foreman added.
But that may not be enough for lynx on the mountain. The most up-to-date studies show that the threatened wild cats tend to avoid ski areas, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Kurt Broderdorp.
“Breckenridge is in a unique spot. It occupies a significant part of the Tenmile Range. So the question was, will lynx cross the ski area to access good habitat that’s… north of the ski area?” Broderdorp said. “When you have people skiing through that habitat, it becomes non-functional.”
To adapt to lost habitat, lynx are known to migrate. Problem is, Broderdorp noted, “we’ve got occupied habitat all around.”
In terms of sheer numbers, a loss of lynx on Peak 6 and throughout area the Tenmile Range won’t affect the overall population of the species, spread across 13 states, Broderdorp said. In the long run, he hopes that Vail Resorts’ agreement to improve habitats away from the ski area should help the larger regional lynx population.