As recently as this summer, it looked like Crested Butte Mountain Resort -- a ski area in western Colorado renowned for its extreme terrain -- might finally expand onto the forested slopes of uncharismatically-dubbed Snodgrass Mountain (Gusundheit!).
The company has been pushing the expansion for decades, and a strong local opposition movement has been active for just about as long. Opponents have long been concerned that the proposal -- the most recent version of which calls for a handful of lifts and about 276 skiable acres carved out of national forest -- would cut off public access to popular backcountry skiing and snowshoe routes on Snodgrass, increase avalanche danger on other parts of the mountain and harm wildlife habitat, among other things.
Then the economy tanked. With locals scrabbling to make ends meet, it seemed resort officials might finally have their opportunity to really sell the project -- with its promise of new jobs and revenue -- to the community, as Rachel Odell Walker reported in her April, 2009, High Country News feature, "Go sell it on the mountain."
Not so much, it turns out.
On Nov. 5, Grand Mesa Uncompahgre Gunnison National Forest Supervisor Charles Richmond rejected the resort's expansion proposal and request for federal environmental review. Several factors contributed to the decision, Richmond wrote in a letter to ski area officials, including intense public opposition to the project, its potential to max out local public services and infrastructure, the development pressure it could bring to bear on neighboring private lands, potential avalanche problems, potential impacts to Canada lynx habitat, and not least of all, "geologic hazards presented by unstable soils and unpredictable hydrology."
To proceed with consideration and approval of development which would have the social and community effects I summarize, in the face of the inherent limitations and challenges of the mountain, considering potential environmental effects we already know of, without the clear support of the affected community, would not be in the public interest.
Pretty much everyone in the community, including the opposition, was shocked, with reactions ranging "from 'Wow' to 'Whoa,'" reports the Crested Butte News. CBMR officials pointed out in a press release that the Forest Service had approved public-lands expansion plans for other ski areas, including Vail, despite fiercely divided communities. “But the Forest Service made the decision whether to approve (those expansions) after conducting a public (National Environmental Policy Act) process and asking the public comment on objective studies on a draft and final EIS,” the press release states. “The decision to reject the Snodgrass proposal comes after five years and before public vetting of the project.”
But, as the News reports:
Despite the fact that the Forest Service has “allocated” Snodgrass as an appropriate place for downhill skiing, and (the fact that) it is part of the CBMR Special Use Permit boundary, “There was never any guarantee to approve a project on that mountain,” Richmond emphasized. He said the agency is more and more using the type of “pre-NEPA” process CBMR has gone through. “With these big projects in particular, we are saying it is up to the proponent to get the public support and work through the list of potential problems before going into NEPA,” he explained. “Once it’s in NEPA, it becomes a Forest Service project that we have to defend. This was a project I wasn’t willing to take on and defend.”