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Aspen Skiing Co. has stressed during the Pandora’s debate that the expansion won’t harm elk and would actually benefit forest health, but some critics contend the project should be examined through a wider environmental lens.
At a presentation before the Pitkin County commissioners last week, Skico officials called White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams to address environmental issues.
“I’ll be honest, this was a pretty straightforward project,” Fitzwilliams said of the Forest Service review of Pandora’s. He concluded in March 2019 that there was a “Finding of No Significant Impacts,” or FONSI, for the project and the White River granted approval of the Pandora’s expansion.
Fitzwilliams told the commissioners that the Forest Service review concluded there was no wetlands disruption, minimal effects on wildlife species of local concern and that the spruce-fir forest on the high-elevation, east side of Aspen Mountain would benefit from the logging proposed by Skico.
“It’s a little decadent, a little old,” Fitzwilliams said, though he added, “we didn’t (approve) the project for forest health. We did it for skiing.”
The Forest Service’s look at wildlife issues in the environmental assessment relied extensively on Colorado Parks and Wildlife studies.
“According to CPW’s species activity maps, the project area provides summer range for elk and mule deer,” the analysis said. “Production range for elk is mapped by CPW below the project area in the McFarlane Creek drainage and eastward along the mid-slopes of the Roaring Fork drainage.”
Personnel from the Forest Service or a contractor visited the Pandora’s terrain after calving season in 2018 to look for evidence of elk calving activity but found none.
“It is apparent that, at least in 2018, elk did not use the project area during the calving period,” the study said.
Calving terrain tends to have “open water” within one-quarter mile, the study said. That is absent on most of the Pandora’s land, the study said, though it didn’t mention the presence of Loushin’s Pond on the southern edge of the Pandora’s boundary.
The expansion would have mostly a temporary impact on cover and forage on 161 acres of the Pandora’s terrain that elk use during summers, the study continued.
“Other than the areas impacted by the snowmaking ponds and pumps, the lift terminals and the permanent access road, all other impacts would be either temporary — as in the case of forage sources distributed for snowmaking lines — or would simply convert cover to forage, as in clearing trees for ski trails and the chairlift,” the study said.
Tree removal has been another issues of concern for many people. Skico submitted a revised tree removal plan prior to the Aug. 25 review “in response to BOCC concerns or reservations raised about the scope, extent and impacts of timbering program associated with trail development.”
The new plan increases the amount of glading and reduces clear-cutting of trails. That will reduce the acreage cut and the truck trips by about 27%, the company’s revised application said.
Skico’s proposal is to add 153 acres of Pandora’s terrain to the Aspen Mountain operational boundary. Of that new terrain, 82 acres would be developed trails and 71 acres would be through glades.
The developed trails wouldn’t be clear-cut, said Skico senior project manager Mak Keeling. Instead, clusters of trees will remain.
In the glades, trees would be cleared at a 50% rate in the intermediate terrain, a 33% rate on the expert terrain and 25% rate in the more remote areas to the south, according to Skico’s application. In many places, Keeling said, Skico will achieve its goal simply by removing dead trees on the ground and dead standing trees.
“A lot of our work is already done for us,” Keeling said in the county commissioner meeting last week.
The Forest Service approved a plan in 2012 that specifically looked at improving forest health within the four Aspen-Snowmass ski areas. The plan identified the need to “treat” 185 acres at Aspen Mountain, including some of the Pandora’s terrain.
“Forest health has deteriorated regionally due to a combination of problems such as mountain pine and spruce beetle infestations, aspen decline, mistletoe and past drought,” the 2012 Aspen Skiing Co. Forest Health study said. “Without intervention, stand resilience and overall forest health is likely to continue deteriorating.”
Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said during the county commissioners’ hearing that the Pandora’s project was the “right thing” for the forest and the community. He credited the Forest Service for their analysis of the environmental issues.
“I can attest their environmental review is extensive. Their biology review is extensive. Their wildlife review is extensive,” Kaplan said. “We are better stewards of the land for this partnership.”
But in public comments at the commissioners’ meeting and in letters to the editor, it is clear that some Aspen-area residents feel the Pandora’s project comes at too steep of environmental price and that the studies only tell part of the story.
In an Aug. 18 letter to The Aspen Times, Aspen resident Kathy Welgos urged the community to “respect Mother Nature.”
“The delicate balance of nature will indeed be compromised,” Welgos wrote. “The backside of Aspen Mountain is the home to herds of elk, deer habitat, bear dens, and numerous other mountain creatures. Despite the studies and research, this project cannot be justified.”
A speaker at the Aug. 25 meeting said climate change has a massive and wide ranging impact on Earth that is slowly becoming clearer to environmental scientists. He urged the county to slow its review of Pandora’s in order to do a thorough environmental study.
Another speaker, 21-year-old Aspen native Eva Chilson, said Aspen Mountain is already a unique ski area that doesn’t need more terrain. In addition, she said, Skico doesn’t need to make more money by adding terrain. Chilson said the community is already facing challenges from climate change and should not add to them.
It makes no sense to remove healthy trees from the forest when climate change presents such a threat, she said. Other speakers contend that by taking action to draw more people, Aspen increases its carbon footprint through emissions from private vehicles and airplanes and activities while visitors are in town.
“There is a distinct line between taking care of the environment or looking out for the environment and using it for financial gain or intensely developed leisure activities,” Chilson said.
She urged the county commissioners to take time with review and do it right.
“The future of the new generation, my generation, and the sustainability of the environment in Aspen may be irreversibly affected by this decision,” she said.
Chilson concluded by asking, “We do all like to have fun, but do we have to do it at the detriment of the environment?”
Longtime Aspen resident Suzanne Caskey noted that the county commissioners have stated one of their top priorities is to look at all decisions based on their impact on climate change. In that light, it’s time for the Aspen area to “stop excusing the harm” it is inflicting on the environment and start saying “no” to actions that add to global warming, she said.
The county commissioners did not vote on the Pandora’s expansion at their Aug. 25 meeting. They will renew the review Sept. 8.
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