Forest Service says climate change not a factor in Breckenridge Ski Area expansion

Summit County residents should be breathing a deep sigh of relief these days as they apparently live in a global warming-free zone, at least according to the U.S. Forest Service, which recently completed an environmental study for a ski area project without ever mentioning the words “global warming,” “climate change” or “carbon.”

 The White River National Forest this month released the 160-page draft Environmental Impact Study for a proposed expansion of summer activities at Breckenridge Ski Area. The report is supposed to disclose and compare the environmental effects of the expansion, steering the Forest Service toward shaping a plan with minimal environmental impacts.

 Vail Resorts wants to install multiple zip lines, tree canopy tours and an observation tower. Also on the wish list are 15 miles of new mountain bike trails on Peak 7, expanded four-wheel drive tours in the alpine zone and summer operation of Chair 6 and the Imperial Express, on Peak 8.

 According to the agency’s study, the proposal would increase summer visitation to about 325,000. But White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams told The Colorado Independent that his agency doesn’t need to analyze the carbon or climate effects of the project because they are insignificant in the bigger climate picture.

 “The Forest Service doesn’t have a good metric for measuring the climate impacts of recreation,” he said. The issue of climate change and carbon impacts is so complex and global that a site-specific analysis of the Breckenridge proposal wouldn’t help solve the problem, Fitzwilliams added.

 But for other projects, the Forest Service has gone as far as analyzing carbon emissions of running trucks and engines and electricity use. It might seem logical to disclose the carbon impacts of running two chairlifts all summer long, said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski.

Click to enlarge.
The expansion plan. Click to enlarge.

 Unclear climate rules

 “The White River can and should analyze climate impacts. The whole purpose of such an analysis would be to see if there are mitigation measures or alternatives that could lower the climate impacts,” said Zukoski, who successfully challenged the Forest Service in federal court over the lack of climate study for a coal mine project on public lands near Paonia.

Fitzwilliams acknowledged recent legal decisions but said that, while it’s legitimate to analyze the carbon footprint of an energy project, it doesn’t make sense to use the same standards for recreation. He said Vail Resorts as a company appears committed to reducing its carbon footprint, and that the Forest Service needs to get its own (green)house together before bossing around lease holders on climate.

 Zukoski sees things differently.

 “The supervisor may be right that the total emissions may be small compared to, say, methane emissions from a coal mine (something else the FS likes to approve), but it’s the aggregation of all the small emissions that makes climate change worse,” he said.

“The White River’s own lax pace at addressing its own emissions shouldn’t be an excuse for punishing the public (not Vail Resorts, as the supervisor suggested) by declining to inform the public about emissions, which is what NEPA is about,” Zukoski added, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act, which sets out environmental rules for federal agencies.

As early as 2009, under Republican President George W. Bush, the Forest Service recognized climate change as one of its “most urgent challenges.” 

Back then, the agency’s top green brass in Washington listed some actions likely to have such a minor impact that no disclosure is necessary. Those include: “Installing a water guzzler for wildlife habitat improvement, approving a use by a commercial outfitter for guided hunting trips, removing hazardous trees in a campground, and chipping brush along a roadside.”

But Zukoski said those examples didn’t include things like using additional significant amounts of electricity sufficient to run a chairlift 10 hours a day for three extra months a year.

Climate irony

The disregard for carbon emissions and climate impacts in the Breckenridge study may seem particularly ironic given that Vail Resorts is significantly expanding summer recreation as a hedge against global warming. Ski seasons are likely to get shorter during coming seasons, and lowland summer temperatures are expected to soar, driving more people to the mountains during the summer.

Environmental experts said the climate impacts of the proposed summer projects at Breckenridge should also be seen in the context of the huge overall carbon footprint of the tourism industry, including massive emissions from transportation, as well as energy use in hotels, restaurants and running resort installations like lifts and snow-making.

Fitzwilliams’ reasoning also flies in the face of forthcoming new guidance, issued in draft form last month by the Council on Environmental Quality, the cabinet-level environmental oracles of the executive branch.

The fact that any single action or approval only represents a small percentage of global emissions is no reason to automatically exclude consideration of climate change impacts, according to the draft guidance.

It’s not clear if the draft study as written complies with existing regulations and guidance on climate change, and that could be sorted out in a legal challenge, as environmental groups have been pushing the federal government to take climate change more seriously.

In addition to Vail Resorts’ original proposal, the Forest Service also developed a second option that scales back some of the installations and operation of facilities. The low-impact alternative was developed in response to concerns about natural resource impacts like wildlife habitat. It also fails to mention global warming or carbon emissions, but common sense suggests it would likely result in a smaller climate footprint.

Adding a short section to describe and compare the relative climate impacts would move the Forest Service in the right direction. But the hard work is ahead as worldwide carbon emissions need to be cut massively in the next 35 years to avert a potential spiral of extreme global warming, according to climate scientists.


The Breckenridge draft study is open for public comment through March 2. A public open house regarding the proposal will be held at Mountain Thunder Lodge (50 Mountain Thunder Drive, Breckenridge, CO 80424) on Feb. 24, 2015, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Representatives from the Forest Service and the resort company will be present to answer questions and provide additional information on this project.

Environmental advocates say citizens have every right to expect the Forest Service to evaluate the climate impacts of public land projects, and should do so in their formal written comments and in questions at the open house.

Send written comments to: Scott Fitzwilliams, Forest Supervisor, c/o Roger Poirier, Project Leader, 120 Midland Ave, Suite 140, Glenwood Springs, CO 81601.

To comment by email click here.

For additional information please contact Roger Poirier, Project Manager at 970-945-3245 or visit the White River National Forest website at:

The release of this document initiates the 45-day objections period, which allows members of the public to provide feedback on the proposal. The White River National Forest plans to issue a Final Environmental Impact Statement and project decision in late summer 2015.

[ Top photo by Bob Berwyn of some of the high alpine areas around Breckenridge peaks six and seven where the expansion is planned to take place.]


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