Colorado ski area dumps all over trout stream

  • Snow chokes Little Vasquez Creek

    Doreen Schmidt

WINTER PARK, Colo. - When a snow-grooming machine swept downhill at Colorado's Winter Park ski area in late January, it did more than groom a wider ski run. It packed a section of Little Vasquez Creek with snow, possibly wiping out the stream's population of cutthroat trout.

Winter Park and the Forest Service are at odds over the incident.

Gary McGraw, Winter Park's vice president of operations, says studies by hired consultants show no fish could have died under the packed snow since none were there: The stretch of creek is too fast-flowing to be ideal winter habitat. He adds that the stream wasn't dammed long enough to affect the fish downstream, and in any case the Forest Service had at one point agreed to let the ski area pack the creek with snow to make a skier bridge.

The Forest Service disagrees on all three counts.

An agency report says filling the creek diverted the stream from its channel. Any fish in the choked stretch of stream died, it says, and depending on how long the channel downstream of the dam was frozen, the rest of the stream's trout may have died as well.

Sulphur District Ranger George Edwards says that since biologists can't thoroughly study the stream until summer, ski area management can't claim that cutthroat - considered a sensitive species by the Forest Service - didn't die in the incident. "I don't know how they can say that," he said. "There definitely was less water in the stream." Edwards says ski area personnel should have known the creek was off-limits. "They certainly were aware of it at one time, but maybe they forgot - but I don't think so."

The incident has caught the attention of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials, who say the ski area violated the Clean Water Act. McGraw disagrees. "I don't know how (snow) could muddy the water," he says.

But that's exactly what could happen, says Michael Claffey, a Corps of Engineers biologist. Diverting the creek with packed snow may cause substantial erosion during spring runoff. This could further harm any surviving trout, he adds, and if they disappear "you've lost the genetic variability." Any mitigation measures won't be decided until after the trout and the creek are studied this summer.

Winter Park, on the Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Forest, has tangled with the Forest Service over this trout population before. Since the trout's winter habitat is so small - a 250-foot section of meandering stream - any disturbance could cause harm, says Forest Service biologist Doreen Schmidt. Winter Park once used half-culverts to bridge the stream in winter, but in summer the ski area was supposed to remove them to allow sunlight to reach the streambed and riparian vegetation. In the spring of 1993 and 1994, the Forest Service found the culverts in place, says Schmidt.

"(Winter Park) had said they were removed," she says, "and we went in and they weren't."

It's about time the company faces the law, says one ski area worker. "They've leased it for so long," the worker says, "they act like Western ranchers. They think they're above the law."

For more information, contact Doreen Schmidt, Sulphur Ranger District, U.S. Forest Service, P.O. Box 10, Granby, CO 80446 (970/887-4100); Gary McGraw or Joan Christensen, Communications Director, Winter Park Resort, P.O. Box 36, Winter Park, CO 80482 (970/726-5514).

Dustin Solberg, HCN intern

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