Aspen Ski Company Takes Backcountry Terrain

Post by blogger | March 11, 2006      

Environmental screed of the month:
The Aspen Skiing company (Skico) is going against its own “green” marketing push and expanding Snowmass Ski Resort into a pristine wild area that’s popular with backcountry skiers. News Report

The land in question is a pocket wilderness between Snowmass and Buttermilk ski mountain to the east, mostly on a gladed highpoint known as Burnt Mountain. The area provides quite a bit of low angled northerly snow that can be quite good for mellow backcountry skiing, as well as a bit of steeper powder skiing. It also provides Aspen’s only backcountry “interconnect” route via a short ski tour that connects Snowmass and Buttermilk.

While I’m a fan of the Skico in general, their green marketing program has always invoked cynicism on my part. After all, no matter how much wind power they buy or bio diesel they burn, a ski resort remains a fairly industrial operation that takes quite a bit of otherwise backcountry land. Such lands are not a renewable resource. Once Snowmass expands on Burnt Mountain, that terrain is gone virtually forever as pristine backcountry to be used for ski touring and other quiet recreation. (Perhaps taking land is a ski resort thing, since wind power and bio diesel use huge amounts of land to produce.)

I’m surprised that the Skico didn’t use the Burnt Mountain expansion issue as another marketing angle. Instead of sticking with their expansion plans (which are totally unnecessary at huge and uncrowded Snowmass), they could have announced their desire to stop expanding Snowmass, and to let Burnt Mountain remain as backcountry. More, they could work with local guides and promote the interconnect route between Snowmass and Buttermilk, thus giving their guests more options while not expanding their ski runs to a backcountry area. What is more, acres of terrain WITHIN the Snowmass ski area boundary could easily be logged out to create more ski runs — so why ignore that resource and expand into the backcountry? Mystery upon mystery.

In defense, skico CEO Mike Kaplan says that “when you convert one powder stash, you create another.”

What Kaplan and many others don’t appear to realize is that it’s tough to find lower angled skiable glades in the Colorado Backcountry (less avalanche danger, easier skiing for average skiers). Burnt Mountain provides some of that. Taking such terrain for resort skiing damages a limited and non-renewable recreation resource.

Perhaps what Kaplen means is that backcountry skiers should carry saws and pruning shears like they do in the Northestern U.S. and create our own glades? Not a bad idea…

Would it help if a person told me they spotted a lynx and wolverine up on Burnt Mountain? They didn’t want the attention — and neither did the animals. (And besides, mentioning the sacred lynx might make backcountry skiers unwelcome as well.)

As an aside, it’s ironic that many Colorado glades such as those on Burnt Mountain were created by logging (sometimes combined with a burn), but most such events occurred so long ago that the logged areas have reverted to pristine backcountry, and form unique environments similar to our forests before modern fire control made them unnaturally overgrown and dense. Ironic, yes, but another reason why Burnt Mountain is special and shouldn’t be violated by adding it to a ski resort and cutting more trees.

(And yes, the usually shrill Aspen environmentalist crowd was involved in this issue when the process first began, but after the battle was lost they moved on to other fights — an understandable approach, as an enviro outfit must prioritize its efforts like anyone else. Too bad, this is one battle I wish they’d fought and won.)

Snowmas Trail Map (area in question is to left on map, beyond the “Longshot” ski run).


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