FRISCO — Imagine summertime two years from now at Breckenridge Ski Area: Zip-lines; jeep and tree-top canopy tours; observation towers; up to 15 miles of new trails. Tourists would have fun. Locals would have jobs.
But Breckenridge residents say that’s not how the Vail Resorts plan for summer expansion will play out. The new tourist attractions will destroy wildlife habitat, they say. Parking will become a nightmare. Housing will become scarce. Quality of life will decline.
And the residents aren’t the only ones worried about the plan. The EPA says the Vail Resorts and U.S. Forest Service turned in a proposal lacking hard evidence about the number of visitors the project would draw.
According to the study, the new summer attractions would increase visitation by around 10 percent.
The EPA responded: “Show us the numbers.”
The study should accurately say how many visitors the park would have, the EPA wrote. If the numbers are higher than originally stated, the final version should show the project’s impact on high alpine tundra, wetlands and the town.
The White River National Forest has been studying the plan for the past year and comparing the impact of the Vail Resorts’ dream project against the impact of an alternative that would cut the scope of the summer activities. White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams will decide on the final shape of the project sometime this year.
The Forest Service gleaned its numbers for the study from various sources including surveys conducted at the Breckenridge fun park, on private land at the base of the area and from town-planning documents, said Roger Poirier, mountain sports program manager for the White River National Forest.
Talking about the EPA’s questions, Poirier said, it’s hard for the Forest Service to differentiate the guests who come to the area for general reasons from those who may come because of the summer activities.
“People often come to the area because of the overall experience and not for one specific activity. This is especially true for destination guests that are staying for three to five nights on average,” Poirier said. “It’s highly likely we’ll see an increase of guests to the greater Breckenridge area because of the entire listing of activities provided – from Fourth of July activities to downtown concerts to new zip lines on Peak Eight.”
Herding tourists into a giant clump may work for the Forest Service and Vail Resorts, but it doesn’t sit well with some Breckenridge locals who watch vacationers circle the town like vultures at an Old West gunfight, waiting to swoop on that one lone parking spot.
A few dozen residents wrote the U.S. Forest Service last month, asking the agency to scale back the project. Some who signed the letter feared losing their jobs if they talked about their concerns on record.
“It’s a shame this plan gets so little coverage and opposition, and that Vail has succeeded in making sure anyone who dares to criticize gets painted as anti-growth, anti-Breck and anti-guest,” said Dave Rossi, who spent a term on the Breckenridge town council fighting to uphold community values over corporate interests.
In their letter about the proposal, the residents said the Forest Service downplays the harm the project will cause. The plan ignores that Breckenridge is packed nearly every weekend. Adding tens of thousands of new visitors will upset “the balance of the surrounding landscapes and the human environment,” the letter stated. “While we realize that there will be some economic benefits to our local community, there is nothing at all in the DEIS on the negative effects.”
The residents expressed frustration that for-profit Vail Resorts gets to do business on public lands supported by taxpayers while locally-owned, recreation companies struggle to compete. The letter also challenged the jobs-creation aspect of the proposal, saying it’s not needed “here in busy Breckenridge where we have too many jobs and not enough applicants primarily because there is not enough affordable housing.”
The town council didn’t offer a formal comment because of a procedural snafu, according to Mayor John Warner.
Even though town environmental experts prepared a formal comment letter highlighting concerns about impacts to alpine areas and cherished wetlands, the town council voted against sending the letter on short notice.
“I think they thought it was too edgy,” Warner said, referring to some of council members’ reluctance to express any criticism of Vail Resorts.
[Top photo by Bob Berwyn of Peak Six; bottom by James Shields of a town corner in 2006.]