Letter: Ski area expansion needs proper NEPA review
Steamboat Resort is seeking approval for a ski area expansion that includes the construction of the longest gondola in North America. The Wild Blue Gondola is designed to carry an additional 3,200 people per hour from the base to the summit of Sunshine Peak, the terminus of the Sundown and Sunshine lifts, where a new restaurant would be added.
The U.S. Forest Service stated that by concentrating development onto the ski area, it helps preserve more remote places elsewhere. We at Keep Routt Wild agree. Concentrating development to a few identified areas in Routt County enables us to protect other areas for future generations. This principle represents a grand bargain between recreation and conservation in Routt County.
The Forest Service has chosen to evaluate the proposal through an Environmental Assessment, rather than an EIS, under the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, representing a lesser level of environmental review. Moreover, at a virtual public meeting July 17, the Forest Service stated that they would not be evaluating the impact of summer operations associated with this expansion, nor place restrictions on those operations. As it stands, the ski area could haul hikers, bikers and backpackers up nearly 3,500 feet to Sunshine Peak where they could subsequently descend the reverse side of the ski mountain into pristine wild lands, including sensitive elk summer range.
This presents a serious environmental impact well outside the boundaries of the ski area. At a recent Bud Werner Memorial Library event, wildlife biologist Paul Millhouser presented his findings that human encroachment, specifically into summer range, was a key factor in the steeply declining elk herds in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys.
Whether or not one thinks new summer access is a good idea, if authorized, it must be evaluated. Current NEPA regulations and the project’s own documents state, “Cumulative effects analysis will include past, present and reasonably foreseeable future activities that could affect, or could be affected by, implementation of proposed projects.” Summer operation of a ski area gondola is clearly foreseeable.
Steamboat Resorts stated that they have no plans to carry summer recreationists up Wild Blue Gondola. The summer plans only include special events, such as weddings, that pose little impact. If so, there is a simple solution — explicitly restrict the approved summer operations to events like these.
However, without these restrictions, the law is clear. The Forest Service must conduct a thorough evaluation of these potential summer impacts.
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