Proposed ski resort does a face plant

  After a 25-year battle, opponents of a proposed ski resort in Eagle County, Colo., have reason to celebrate.


The brainchild of developer Fred Kummer, Adam's Rib ski resort was slated for Forest Service land halfway between Vail and Aspen (HCN, 2/19/96). But after a two-year review, the agency frowned on Kummer's plans for condos, restaurants and a hotel at the base of Adam Mountain. Officials felt the plans were too expansive, and seemed to take precedence over the proposed ski mountain development itself.


The 68-year-old Kummer, who has been pursuing Adam's Rib from the start, then withdrew his application in May, saying, "Life is too damned short."


Members of the local opposition group Concerned Citizens for Eagle County hailed the Adam's Rib demise at a potluck near Eagle. The main course of conversation: one rib, well barbecued.


"It's a tremendous relief," says Gene Lorig, president of the group. "It was sure fun fighting it; it was a great hobby."


Kummer, a St. Louis-based hospital and luxury hotel developer, got the idea for Adam's Rib while vacationing in Vail in the late 1960s. Surveying the new Forest Service list of potential ski area sites, he chose Adam Mountain, 15 miles south of Eagle and adjacent to Eve Mountain. A low ridge - the rib in Adam's Rib - fronts both mountains.


In 1972, Kummer applied for a special-use permit to start the project. Even then, locals raised concerns about how a ski development would affect undeveloped Adam Mountain, and how Kummer's planned real estate development would change the narrow valley at the mountain's base.


Still, in 1983 the Forest Service granted Kummer a permit to use federal land for a ski area with about the same ski-run capacity as Beaver Creek, Vail's sibling. Eagle County also gave him tentative approval for a golf course, thousands of housing units, and a resort complex.


Then, in 1993, after the Army Corps of Engineers rejected Kummer's application to develop in wetland areas, he suggested an even less popular alternative: slicing off the top of the ridge (the rib) to create a bench for a village on the side of the ski mountain. The proposal garnered more criticism from local residents, and the Forest Service ordered a study of the whole project.


For two years a Forest Service study team skied and walked Adam Mountain, looking at the project's potential environmental impacts. What they found most troublesome were Kummer's plans for the valley below the mountain, particularly wetlands and riparian areas, much of which Kummer owns.


Finally, in a March 18 report, the team concluded the ski resort was simply a magnet Kummer would use to lure real estate buyers. "Skiing appears to be a secondary amenity to real estate development around the base of the mountain," it wrote.


Kummer met on May 8 with Eagle District Ranger Anne Heubner. "We were pretty honest with each other," she says. The next day Kummer faxed letters to both the Forest Service and the Army Corps, ending the project he had spent more than $30 million pursuing. If he chooses to sell his local real estate holdings, however, he should recover his investment.


Still, Kummer was disappointed by the project's failure. "The so-called environmentalists," he said in an interview. "They don't know how to get anything done, but they know how to stop things."


The Forest Service did Fred Kummer a favor, says Jerry Jones, a Colorado ski industry veteran. Adam's Rib would have cost $50 million in infrastructure and planning costs before opening, he argues, and even with good business and savvy marketing, the area would have run a $1.5 million annual deficit.


The ski industry has simply reached its limit, says Jones.


Larger resorts in the state, such as Vail and Breckenridge, have absorbed most of the state's ski business and real estate investment, making it tough for smaller start-up resorts to survive. Jones doesn't expect to see a new ski development on federal land in the West for another 20 years. "There's no need for a new ski area. The market is flat and the cost of a new area is substantial."


Nationally, too, smaller ski areas are folding as mega-resorts tap the ski market dry. The number of ski areas in the country plummeted from 735 in 1983 to 519 in 1996. While one ski resort proposal is still on the books for Colorado - Catamount ski area near Steamboat Springs - financial backing has been hard to come by (HCN, 6/26/95).


Harry Frampton, former head of Vail's ski operations, says ski area developers will only succeed if they include local residents in the planning process. "Every year it is getting more difficult to do developments," he said. "And every year in the future it will get more difficult."


*Allen Best





The writer works at the Vail/Beaver Creek Times.