Forest Service halts Vail Resorts’ new lift at Keystone due to unauthorized road construction
Fragile Alpine tundra, wetland areas damaged
Construction of a new chairlift at Keystone Resort was ordered to cease this week after the U.S. Forest Service learned that an unauthorized road had been bulldozed through sensitive areas where minimal impacts were authorized.
Keystone Resort, which operates by permit on U.S. Forest Service land, was granted permission by the White River National Forest to construct a new chairlift this summer in the area known as Bergman Bowl, creating a 555-acre expansion of Keystone’s lift-served terrain. But that approval came with plenty of comments from the Environmental Protection Agency, which recommended minimal road construction associated with the project due to Bergman Bowl’s environmentally sensitive location.
“To ensure that wetlands are protected, it may be necessary to consider exclusion of road, trail or infrastructure construction and mechanized vegetation and tree removal treatments in areas where wetlands or riparian areas would be adversely impacted either directly or indirectly from adjacent construction activities,” the EPA commented during the project’s scoping period.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said while the Forest Service does approve many projects like Bergman Bowl, officials typically don’t allow construction of new access roads in Alpine tundra.
“When you drop a bulldozer blade in the Alpine, that is very fragile, and very difficult to restore,” Fitzwilliams said.
In Bergman Bowl, the Forest Service has found “damage to the Alpine environment … impacts to wetlands and stuff that we normally don’t want to do,” Fitzwilliams said.
As a result, Fitzwilliams issued a cease and desist letter to Vail Resorts. He said the company immediately complied and shut down the impacted parts of the project.
The Forest Service has not yet determined if a full restoration can occur.
“When you impact the Alpine environment, it’s not easy to restore,” Fitzwilliams said. “Sometimes, although achievable in some areas, it’s difficult.”
Fitzwilliams said Vail Resorts notified Forest Service officials of the miscommunication that had occurred in allowing the unauthorized access route to be constructed, and the company has also hired a contractor to draft a restoration plan, which the Forest Service will need to approve.
“We’re a long-term partner with Vail, and they’ve been a good partner,” Fitzwilliams said. “I’m confident we’ll be able to work through this, but it’s serious. We take this very serious.”
A Keystone Resort spokesperson said the mistake occurred as the result of a misunderstanding from the company’s construction team, and the company is taking full responsibility for the mistake.
“We deeply regret the impact this unauthorized construction activity has had on the environment that our team works carefully to protect every day,” said Chris Sorensen, vice president and general manager of Keystone Resort. “We take environmental protection and compliance extremely seriously and are committed to making this right.”
Fitzwilliams said after issuing the cease-and-desist order, the next steps in attempting to remedy the situation involve creating and implementing a restoration plan.
“Vail will be held responsible for developing a plan, paying for the restoration, and implementing the restoration,” Fitzwilliams said. “It’s not something that the Forest Service or the taxpayer will pay to have fixed.”
Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service is currently drafting a supplemental information report.
“We basically do a comparison between what happened on the ground, and what did we say was going to happen in our environmental decision,” Fitzwilliams said.
After that report is drafted, the Forest Service could create a supplement to the project’s National Environmental Policy Act analysis, which could change the way the project is carried out moving forward.
“If we have to stop and say we need to supplement the NEPA analysis, that’s what we’ll do,” Fitzwilliams said.
The associated documents will be added to the Forest Service’s Bergman Bowl Project page.
Vail Resorts said the misunderstanding occurred as a result of its construction team mistaking an area that was supposed to have minimal construction for an area where temporary construction activities were approved.
The environmental assessment on the Bergman Bowl expansion notes that vegetation removal and ground disturbance associated with the project may impact the threatened Canada lynx, the white-tailed ptarmigan, boreal owl, goshawk, American marten, olive-sided flycatcher, pygmy shrew, hoary bat and Rocky Mountain elk habitat in the project area.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife pointed out that the project area also falls within moose, mountain goat, mule deer, black bear and boreal toad habitat, along with multiple species of raptors and migratory songbirds.
Numerous commenters spoke out against the project during the scoping period, submitting comments like “The animals need a better voice in matters because the effects are already noticeable,” and “the tranquility in these bowls is what makes them special.”
But commenters also spoke out in favor of the project, saying it will “allow people to have access to amazing, high alpine skiing that is not currently reachable to most,” and “would give beginners to experts a great high alpine experience that is currently open to only a few people because of the hiking currently required.”
For those hoping to take a ride on that Bergman Bowl lift soon, however, they may be waiting another season. While no new timetable on the halted project has been issued, Fitzwilliams said guests will “probably not” be riding the lift anytime soon.
“We are confident that a lot of the impacts we saw up there can be restored,” Fitzwilliams said. “But it’s gonna take a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money.”
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