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Mountain News: More summer activities, fewer ski expansions in national forest



Scott Fitzwilliams painted a picture of the White River National Forest with broad strokes when he met with representatives of Colorado ski towns last Friday in Glenwood Springs.

Fitzwilliams is supervisor of White River, a national forest that includes 12 ski areas from Arapahoe Basin to Aspen, from Keystone to Sunlight, and is one of the most heavily used in the United States for recreation.

It also features a rare amount of urban life along the forest boundaries. Vail, for example, is nearly encircled by forest lands, with many homes abutting the forests and even designated wilderness. In Pitkin County, where Aspen is located, 79 per cent of land is administered by the federal government, most of it by the U. S. Forest Service. Summit County is close behind at 78 per cent.

The broad sweeps that Fitzwilliams pointed to involve forest management, ski area expansion, and broader summer use of ski areas.

In the future, said Fitzwilliams, ski areas can expect to see more infill work and fewer large-scale terrain expansions. "Back in the day, a 162-hectare (400-acre) expansion was nothing. Now, it's a pretty big thing," he said.

In recent months, Fitzwilliams approved a 223-hectare (550-acre) expansion at Breckenridge ski area and a long-delayed 101-hectare (250-acre) expansion at Snowmass is finally moving forward after a failed legal challenge posed by an opponent. Arapahoe Basin is also planning for minor expansion.

The larger story now unfolding is greater summer use of ski hills. Previous legislation, adopted by Congress in the 1980s, gave the Forest Service limited authority to allow activities beyond skiing and other sliding sports. Even mountain bike trails were somewhat questionable.

Legislation adopted by Congress last year, and signed into law by President Obama, gives the Forest Service permission to allow a far broader swath of activities. All ski areas that operate on federal land — nearly all of them in the west — have indicated plans for ziplines and other summer attractions that have little or nothing to do with snow. But the law also specifically prohibits water parks or other overtly amusement park-type of activities.

But where do you draw the line? The three key criteria, said Fitzwilliams are:

• The activities must be directly connected to the outdoor world;

• The new activities must avoid what he called "kitsch." "It's poorly defined, I recognize that;"

• Messages at the new activities must inform visitors and users about natural resources.

If not necessarily the first out of the chute, perhaps the most closely watched will be Vail's plan. Fitzwilliams has accepted the plan, meaning that the Forest Service generally agrees with the ideas but will soon begin the process of public scoping to see what a closer examination reveals.

More difficult is the potential for significant wildfires in national forests, particularly in areas close to settlements. In the early 1990s, there was significant opposition to any management that involved a chainsaw. That was true in Vail, but probably every other ski town. Now, as trees have died because of the bark beetle epidemic, there's broader acceptance of management. But, from Fitzwilliams' perspective, this is a problem that will take "decades and decades" to address.

Foresters are heartened by recent news that sawmills in Montrose, Colo., and Saratoga, Wyo., have or will soon be reopened, providing markets for trees. Also probable is a 11.5-megawatt electrical generating power plant at Gypsum. In addition, Fitzwilliams is intrigued by a process called biochar, which is being advocated by some renewable energy advocates as a way to sequester carbon. Some limited work is being done adjacent to the White River National Forest at Carbondale.

Whitefish primped up for a date

WHITEFISH, Mont. — Despite the confidentiality forms signed by all involved, it's kind of hard to keep a secret when at least 500 locals were involved as extras, not to mention the 100 crew members brought in from out of town.

The secret in this case was that all the lollygagging around the downtown was for an installment of The Bachelor, the television show. The segment will be broadcast in February.

The downtown was transformed into an idyllic, if something contrived, mountain town setting, reports The Whitefish Pilot. Bright yellow aspen trees were brought in for color, and the slopes of Whitefish Mountain Resort in the background were lit up. And about 500 people showed up to watch the taping as the bachelor and his date sighed side by side.