Mending the mountain
DMR’s planned on-mountain upgrades see light of day

SideStory: The ski area improvement game: Resorts unveil upgrades for the 2007-08 season

Durango Mountain Resort’s Lift 5 sits idle while the ski area awaits snow and the 2007-08 ski season. The resort is proposing a slew of on-mountain improvements, including lift upgrades, new restautants and terrain expansion. The Forest Service’s draft EIS on the plan is expected in the next few months./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

Major upgrades to Durango Mountain Resort may be just one more season away. After three years of review, the Forest Service is currently putting the finishing touches on a draft environmental impact statement that could open the way for new trails, lifts and restaurants at the ski area.

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.

Mike McCormick, DMR vice president of mountain operations, noted that the current master plan was set in 1979, is out of date and much of the resort’s infrastructure is aging. “There was a master development that was first approved by the Forest Service in 1979, and everything on that plan has been completed,” he said. “Now, we’d like to upgrade older lifts, add snowmaking capacity and realign some lifts, and we need the Forest Service to sign off.”

According to the new plan, DMR has a variety of improvements scheduled for the next 20 years. In that time, the resort would like 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; enlarge the current on-mountain restaurants and build a new restaurant/lodge adjacent to the top of Lift 4; and increase snowmaking capacity from 215 to 364 acres. As a second component of the master development plan, the resort has proposed creating permanent trails for the Nordic center and summer horse and adaptive trails across U.S. Highway 550 from the ski area; a new trailhead for snowmobiles; and improvements to the mountain bike trail network. So far, the public has been receptive, according to McCormick.

“I think the public spin is all very positive,” he said. “For the most part, people want to see changes and are ready for improvements.”

Much of DMR’s focus will be on the Chair 8, or Legends Area, of the mountain. As a first move, the area would like to upgrade the existing fixed-grip triple chair into a high-speed quad. In addition, the majority of new trails and the new gladed areas would be created at Purgatory’s western end, around Chair 8.

“There’s plenty of room within the Lift 8 pod to create additional trails,” McCormick said. “A lot of the focus will be on the western edge of the area, where we’d like to expand outside the existing footprint but still inside the ski area boundary.”

The Forest Service is currently putting the finishing touches on a draft environmental impact statement on the entire master plan. To that end, the agency held a public open house, conducted one public scoping two years ago, and a second scoping last summer. The Forest Service has also conducted exhaustive on-the-ground research on potential wildlife impacts.

“A lot of the issue has revolved not so much around lift and new trails, but more along the lines of changes to summer and winter travel,” said Richard Speegle, recreation project manager for the San Juan Public Lands Center. “It’s also interesting that a lot of side issues emerged based on the impacts of DMR’s private development that’s going on up there.”

In spite of these issues, there has been very little public opposition to upgrading the ski resort, according to Speegle. “We’ve conducted two public scopings on this, and we didn’t get more than a dozen comments each time,” he said. “I think the locals generally liked what they saw in the plan.”

Colorado Wild was an outspoken opponent of DMR’s development plan, and the conservation group continues to have “general concerns” about the on-mountain improvements. Colorado Wild has specific questions about wildlife impacts, particularly to lynx, as well as the expansion west beyond the current footprint. Ryan Demmy Bidwell, Colorado Wild’s executive director, said he also wonders if such an expansion is necessary.

“Our general concern is that ski areas should not expand unless there is a specific demand,” he said. “We hope that the EIS will contain some critical analysis as to whether or not the need is there.”

Colorado Wild has hopes that the Forest Service’s three years of work will result in a draft environmental impact statement that will present a variety of expansion options.

“First and foremost, I hope the Forest Service does a good job of laying out the options and giving the public a variety of choices, including expansion both inside and outside the current footprint,” Bidwell said.

For its part, DMR said it plans to tread lightly with any on-mountain improvements. “We have been actively working with the Forest Service to come up with mitigation efforts that will help the mountain,” McCormick said. “Stream health is a big one for us, and we will take steps in terms of road closures and revegetation. With respect to lynx, we know they’re in the area, and we plan on enacting mitigation measures on a large area of the mountain.”

One thing that Colorado Wild and DMR do agree on is that they are both eager to see the draft document. “We hope to go to draft soon here and get it out on the streets and get the public’s take,” McCormick said. “What I hear more than anything is people asking us when we are going to do something. I can respect that wholeheartedly.”

The draft EIS is expected sometime in the next two months, according to Speegle. A final document could be ready by early spring, which could enable DMR to begin upgrades as early as next summer. •