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DMR expansion increases expert terrain by 30 percent

SideStory: New Lift 8 on hold

Hans Hartman with Affordable Fellers works to fell a tree in the Legends Expansion area. The area is being hand -thinned and only dead trees or ones smaller than 6-inches diameter are being cut. The thinning should help the health of the forest by opening up the canopy. The cut trees will be left on the forest floor to eliminate the need for heavy machinery and to provide forage for animals./Photos by Sven Brunso

by Missy Votel

Move over El Niño. While oscillating weather phenomena have made recent headlines, the big news at Durango Mountain Resort is the Legends Expansion, 125 acres of tree skiing that will increase DMR’s expert terrain by 30 percent. The expansion, which is taking place on the ski area’s western boundary near Lift 8, will be done in time for skiing this winter. “We’re all excited. Locals are excited, employees are excited,” said Mike McCormack, DMR Senior Vice President of Mountain Operations. “It’s the first big project in that area since it opened in 1985.”

Crews began thinning the steep, heavily treed area about three weeks ago. McCormack said the ski area first approached the Forest Service about expanding into the area in 2003, as part of the resort’s updated Master Plan. The environmental impact statement was finished last October, paving the way for this summer’s work. “There were very few hiccups,” said McCormack of the environmental approval process. “Every one was pretty much in favor of the project.

The new terrain, which parallels Elliott’s run to the west, will expand the resort’s overall skiable acreage by 10 percent. Offering more than 1,200 vertical feet of skiing, it will be accessible from the junction of Elliott’s and Ray’s Ridge as well as farther down on Elliott’s. Skiers and snowboarders can go the entire distance to Hermosa Park and take a 150-foot cat track back to the bottom of Lift 8 or cut back into Ray’s Ridge. “You can ski the west boundary and take a short cat track back to the lift or take the east boundary and merge back in and gain access to Ray’s,” McCormack said.

While the gladed area will be similar to Wolf Creek’s Waterfall area, with multiple possible routes, McCormack warned enterprising route-seekers from going to far astray. “Some of the drainages will take you away from Lift 8,” he said. “There is a small section down Butler Creek that takes you away from the resort. Skiers are going to have to obey closure signs and ropes.”

DMR Vice President of Sales and Marketing Sven Brunso recently returned from a hiking tour of the expansion area. “I am still very impressed at the steepness of this new terrain,” he blogged on the resort’s website, adding there are dozens of lines “with perfect pitches and trees spaced tightly enough to keep you honest” without hindering a good ride.

“I think locals and visitors alike will enjoy the terrain a bunch,” he told the Telegraph. “It should feel like backcountry with a ride back up.”

But the adventure aspect is not all that’s exciting about the expansion, said McCormack. The area is being cleared by hand crews using the “lop and scatter” method, which is much kinder to the environment than machine-driven clearing methods. In addition, the resort is only cutting standing dead timber, hazard timber and timber less than six inches in diameter. “What was done 30, 20, even 10 years ago is no longer acceptable in environmental terms,” he said. By having small crews hike in and hike out each day, no new roads had to be cut for the expansion, he said. Furthermore, the downed trees are left on the forest floor to decompose rather than being dragged out for logging. “Leaving the course,

woody debris behind is a new technique of clearing and better for the environment,” he said. “It’s more of an impact cutting roads than to just let the trees do what they would do naturally.”

In addition to keeping the area roadless, McCormack said the thinning method is actually beneficial for the forest ecosystem. The area burned in the late-1870s, and the dense vegetation is all about the same height. As a result, trees are competing for limited sunlight, with many standing dead trees. By cutting the dead trees, the canopy is opened, allowing more light for living trees and the forest floor. This not only makes for healthier trees but better forage and habitat for animals. “To do what we’re doing actually enhances the forest’s health,” said McCormack. “By cleaning up the dead wood, we are giving the spruce a better opportunity to thrive.”

McCormack said the thinning is being done by a local company, Affordable Fellers, and crews will likely double from four to eight in the next month in order to get work done before the first snow flies. He added the crews are kept small for safety reasons. “When hand-thinning, it’s better to have fewer people out there to minimize risk,” he said.

The Legends expansion is set to open Dec. 20, snow permitting. Nevertheless, it’s never too early to start preparing mentally. “I can already imagine the adrenaline of the first powder day,” blogged Brunso. “I will be like a kid in a candy store … as my friends and I explore this zone, the new frontier at Durango Mountain Resort.” •