Public smiles on DMR upgrades
Forest Service scoping uncovers few concerns

The Needles lift at the base of Durango Mountain Resort sits motionless on Monday, a day after the resort closed for the season. The resort is proposing a number of upgrades, including 10 new lifts and 17 new trails. So far, the proposal has largely drawn
approval from the public./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Durango Mountain Resort is encountering little opposition as it seeks approval to upgrade its existing operation. In sharp contrast to the controversy surrounding the resort’s bid to expand its real estate, DMR’s push to enhance the existing ski area seems to be walking through the process without any difficulty. Even outspoken opponents of the real estate master plan have found few faults with the current proposal.

DMR has a 20-year vision for the ski mountain and has proposed an update to its aging master plan. As a result, the resort is in the process of seeking Forest Service approval to make a series of improvements to the resort’s main mountain. These proposed upgrades include lift replacements, terrain expansion, new restaurants and increases in uphill carrying capacity and snowmaking.

Matt Skinner, DMR communications director, noted that the current master plan was set in 1979 and much of the resort’s infrastructure also is aging. “Many of our lifts and on-mountain services are tiring,” he said. “It makes sense to keep the resort up to date, efficient and safe.”

DMR’s proposal at a glance
Over a 20-year period, Durango Mountain Resort proposes to:
-Increase its carrying capacity from 6,850 guests per day to 9,600.
-Upgrade three existing lifts and install 10 new lifts
-Improve four existing trails, add 17 new trails and develop two gladed areas for a total 22 percent increase in the trail network
-Increase snowmaking capacity from 215 to 364 acres to offer additional coverage on 14 existing and two proposed trails
-Create an alternative route and parking area for snowmobilers
accessing adjacent national forest lands through the ski resort
-Enlarge the current on-mountain restaurants and build a new restaurant/lodge adjacent to the top of Lift 4
-Drill a new water well to provide the resort with additional domestic water
-Increase the size of fuel storage tanks at the current mid-mountain facility

The Forest Service is in the process of working up a draft environmental impact statement on the proposal. To this end, the agency held a public open house in early March and accepted written public comments through last week.

“Feedback has generally been positive,” Skinner said. “There have been some suggestions about ways to improve amenities on the hill that long-time locals have offered.”

Skinner noted that among these suggestions were calls for improvements to the mountain’s summer trail network and an enhanced arrangement for snowmobiling on the public lands surrounding the resort.

Skinner’s view was shared by Richard Speegle, recreation project leader for the San Juan Public Lands Center. Speegle said that during the public comment period, the public was decidedly absent.

“We probably only received a dozen comment letters,” he said. “For an environmental impact statement, that’s nothing.”

Speegle credited DMR’s proposal as being relatively environmentally friendly. In particular, he said that the resort is planning to stay within the existing permit boundary and not expand into uncharted forest.

“They’re working within the boundaries of the existing area,” Speegle said. “It would have been different if they were saying they want to expand the boundary.”

Colorado Wild and San Juan Citizens’ Alliance, both of whom ardently opposed DMR’s real estate expansion, have taken a friendlier view of on-mountain improvements. Mark Pearson, San Juan Citizens’ Alliance executive director, remarked. “In general, I don’t think we saw any giant red flags.”

Jeff Berman, Colorado Wild executive director, added, “There are a few exceptions. We pointed them out and would like the Forest Service to take a hard look at them.”

Bill Rock, DMR general manager and chief operating officer, greets employees loading the Six Pack during employee ski day Monday. The resort’s master plan
was set in 1979 and much of the resort’s infrastructure is aging, according to DMR Communications Director Matt Skinner./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

In particular, Berman and Pearson both cited the push for new terrain within the permit boundary as worrisome. The resort has asked to improve four existing trails and develop 149 acres of advanced glade skiing west of Chair 8. Also included in the proposal are 17 new trails, all within the existing permit boundary and in the vicinity of the current operation.

“When you build runs, even if you have inter-trail islands, the habitat is disrupted,” Berman said. “Even with glading, there will be significant impacts.”

Berman added that in his mind, much of the terrain on the mountain, particularly Chair 8, is currently under-utilized.

“In my perspective, the Lift 8 pod is the best skiing on the mountain and it’s typically uncrowded,” he said. “I like skiing on Lift 8, but at the same time I’m skiing in clear cuts. We have to be really careful before we make any more.”

Pearson concurred, saying, “We would favor enhancement and improvement of the existing footprint rather than expansion into new terrain.”

Berman also said that he is concerned about new wells on the ski area infringing on a 2002 agreement between Colorado Wild and DMR. The agreement was related to water quality and quantity in the East Fork of Hermosa Creek with an eye on helping the creek’s native cutthroat trout.

“They have to carefully assess whether extracting water in that drainage will affect the quantity of surface water,” Berman said.

However, Berman concluded by saying that, in general, he supports the efforts to improve the existing operation. “Most of what they’re seeking is to increase the capacity on the ski area’s existing footprint, and we support that,” he said.

In spite of the current smooth sailing, the DMR proposal still has a great amount of ground to cover. Speegle said that the Forest Service will take a hard look at the dozen public comments as well as interagency concerns at the end of this month. At that time, the agency will develop alternative actions.

“Eventually, we’ll come out with a draft EIS, and then there’ll be another comment period,” Speegle said.

And if everything goes according to schedule, DMR could begin on-mountain construction in the fall of 2005. “We’re kind of on schedule,” he said. “We’d like to have a final decision by July or August of 2005. But then again, you never know.”






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