Environmental groups file objection over Eldora expansion, may pursue legal action

The residents of Eldora have worked to preserve the forests around their small community and are worried those efforts are threatened by the expansion of Eldora Mountain Resort.

Middle Boulder Creek Coalition and Sierra Club Indian Peaks Group have filed an objection to the Eldora Mountain Resort expansion that could land in court, if the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t significantly revise its Draft Record of Decision allowing the resort to expand in either direction. Environmental groups and local municipalities, including the Boulder County Commissioners and Nederland’s Parks and Open Space Board, have objected to the resort’s expansion into the valley shared by the Hessie trailhead and former town site and questioned the Forest Service’s consideration of a so-called infill alternative that would allow the resort to upgrade its facilities, add parking, update ski lifts and create new terrain without expanding beyond its existing boundaries.

“We believe then, as now, that EMR’s needs can mostly or entirely be met with an alternative that would have much less of an adverse impact on the natural and human environment,” the objection reads. “However, the Forest Service has gone out of its way to ignore our comments. In fact, the proposed action in the Draft Record of Decision (DROD) combines the worst elements of both action alternatives… The agency could not have done a better job of effectively saying ‘we don’t care about your concerns.’”

Expanding toward the Hessie trail head and former town site would jeopardize a critical wildlife migration corridor, they argue, and expansion to the south would cross over existing trails used by cross country skiers and snowshoers, forcing those recreationists to cross up to four downhill ski runs heading each direction.

The conservation groups asked the Forest Service to issue a new decision that makes more use of the infill alternative to minimize environmental impacts or “remand the documents for issuance of a redresses the legal violations and better addresses the intense public controversy set forth below and in other objections to the current decision.”

“We’re pretty set on trying to have them do a full analysis of an infill alternative,” says Dave Hallock, with the Middle Boulder Creek Coalition. In the more than 30 years he’s lived in the town of Eldora, this is the third time he’s run up against the ski area over questions of growth. The first, in the 1980s, overnight lodging in the town and the second, in the 1990s, was the addition of the existing Indian Peaks lift and snowmaking on Corona, on the side of the mountain that faces the town of Eldora.

The community of Eldora, Hallock says, has been working to maintain its footprint at the size it is — and have seen collaboration in working towards that goal from the county, which has purchased or co-purchased with the Eldora Civic Association almost all the mining claims between the ski area and the town of Eldora to preserve that land as open space. The owner of the 700-acre ranch on the east side of town has placed a conservation easement on it (he did so following a map issued from the Town of Nederland suggesting they saw that ranch as a future growth area). They’ve even worked to establish a shuttle to the busy trailhead at Hessie to prevent the construction of a larger parking area there.

“Ski areas kind of have a different philosophy from what we’ve been trying to achieve here, but we thought we had an agreement with the Forest Service through the update of the forest plan,” Hallock says. “Wording was put into the forest plan that the ski area master plan approved for that point in time was kind of the final expansion for them. We felt that that’s what that wording meant, and when we saw the forest plan come out, we were elated. …

“So here we are, down the road almost 20 years, and the Forest Service staff is interpreting that language differently.”

Hence, the fight.

The expansion proposed by Eldora Mountain Resort’s 2011 Master Plan would require revisions to both the forest plan and the county plan to move forward.

“I think we’ve got a really strong case, and it’s up to the forest service at this point if they want to avoid litigation,” says attorney Mike Chiropolos, who filed the objection.

He cites overwhelming public support of at least examining the infill alternative, and he says elected representatives are listening to the public on this issue — and now it’s time for the Forest Service to listen as well.

“For local governments to be signing objections and feel this ignored and marginalized by the federal manager — it’s not good resource management,” Chiropolos says.

They’re hoping Forest Supervisor Glenn Casamassa will change his mind between this draft decision and whatever final decision is released, or that someone else in the Forest Service will take a look at the objections and decide to revise the decision. Hallock raises the point that turnover in the Boulder district office for the Forest Service punted the decision to the Fort Collins-area office, and managers there may have felt fewer ties to the communities affected by this decision.

The Middle Boulder Creek Coalition and Sierra Club Indian Peaks Group have requested a meeting with the Forest Service to discuss their objections. As of Tuesday afternoon, they had not heard back.

“Some of us have a heavy feeling that our only option, if we get nothing out of the objection process, our only option is to go to a court,” Hallock says.

“If the resort wants to do anything any time soon on the mountain, they’ve got to start listening and get better in touch with their customer base,” Chiropolos says. “We all consider ourselves Eldora customers — or at least we were until they pushed this through.”

He cites other ski area decisions that have set precedent for courts ruling in the favor of a public opposed to a ski area expansion on their public lands, specifically the Snodgrass Mountain expansion at Crested Butte. The Forest Service determined in 2009 that that mountain was unsuitable for lift-serviced skiing and that the public support favored protecting the current recreational uses and environment on the mountain. The controversy over Eldora, Chiropolos says, parallels that one.

He estimates that 60 to 70 percent of what Eldora wants to do can be achieved within its existing footprint.

“It’s not quite everything that Eldora is asking for in its master plan, but these lands are owned by all Americans,” he says, “And it’s not the Forest Service’s job to limit their analysis based on the ski resorts wanting to expand in two directions.”

“We don’t feel that we’re being heard at all,” Hallock says. “And it’s not just us. … Everyone from Boulder County to the Town of Nederland to the Division of Parks and Wildlife to Middle Boulder Creek Coalition, we’re all seeing that the expansion down to Middle Boulder Creek goes really against what we’ve been trying to achieve in this valley.”

He looked through the comments received on the draft Environmental Impact Statement for other comments from Eldora residents, and he found 51 people who wrote in against the expansion and five in favor of it.

“Overall I think it’s pretty overwhelming that people are against it, and we just kind of see it as not only a short-term impact in terms of noise, and then they’re going to be cutting trees and to add insult to injury, they’ll be bringing logging trust to town,” he says. “In all honesty, we do feel that this is just a foot in the door for them. … [And] we do fear the future of what the ski area will do once they’ve got their foot down into town.”

Existing management and ownership has said that’s not the plan, but three decades in, Hallock has seen that ownership changes, and with it, so can those promises.

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