Environmentalist sues Colorado ski area as the battle over development widens; Ski companies turning to mountain real estate as a source for profits


GEORGETOWN, Colo. -- Next weekend, skiers here are to inaugurate the world's highest chairlift. Whisking 1,200 skiers an hour to a 12,700-foot ridge, the lift will offer sweeping views of the Rockies and challenging runs down the Continental Divide.

But in a sign of changing times in the nation's most popular skiing state, a Colorado environmentalist is suing, alleging that Loveland Ski Area, the owner of the lift, has violated its federal permit for building on National Forest Service land.

After fighting logging, mining and cattle grazing on national forest lands, environmentalists declared open season this winter on ski areas, once the environmental good guys. Fueling opposition is fear that ski area expansions are triggering runaway development on adjacent private land.

Many large ski companies are turning to mountain real estate as a source for dynamic profits in the future. In contrast, the number of lift tickets sold nationwide each winter has been stagnant for a decade, hovering around 53 million. In that period, Colorado's ticket sales increased by about 20 percent. But in a weather-dependent business, Colorado has seen ticket sales drop 11 percent this season as some resorts endured their scantiest Christmas snow in 40 years.

"It is not about skiing, it is about real estate development," said Jonathan Staufer, a shop owner in Vail and chairman of the Ski Area Citizens Coalition, a new environmental group. "Industrial tourism is posing the next major threat to wild places in Colorado and America."

In the Rockies, signs of growth abound.

Directly below Loveland's new Continental Divide chairlift, but muffled by a quarter-mile of granite, traffic on Interstate 70 regularly slows to a crawl in the Eisenhower Tunnel, a major link between Colorado's busiest ski areas and greater Denver's 2 million people. In 25 years, traffic has quadrupled in the tunnel, 60 miles west of Denver.

In the 75 miles between here and Eagle-Vail Airport, enough home construction is planned to double the populations of several towns in five years. A rural airstrip in 1990, the airport is Colorado's second busiest this winter, offering jet service to 13 cities, including New York and San Francisco.

On public lands, recreation is shaping up as the new battleground. In the past decade, while the volume of timber cut in national forests fell by two-thirds, the number of recreational visitors rose 40 percent. The U.S. Forest Service predicts it will record 1 billion recreational visits a year by 2010.

"Now we see lawsuits, not only against oil, gas and mining, but also to stop recreational use," the chief of the Forest Service, Mike Dombeck, said in Denver recently, after encountering protesters objecting to a 2,000-acre expansion of Vail into national forest land.

In Colorado, where most skiing is done on national forest land, the conflict flared into the public eye in October when an amorphous group, the Environmental Liberation Front, protested the expansion of Vail's ski slopes by burning three buildings and damaging four lifts.

But in less dramatic fights, Colorado environmentalists are lobbying federal agencies to block new ski trails at Keystone Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort. Nearby, at Arapahoe Basin, they are trying to block the installation of a snow-making system that would fulfill that area's dream of becoming the nation's first to offer skiing year-round.

Elsewhere in the West, environmentalists are fighting construction of a new ski area, Pelican Butte, in southern Oregon, and the expansion of Snowbasin in Utah. In recent months, the Forest Service overrode objections to the expansion of Santa Fe ski area in New Mexico, but rejected a proposed ski area for Mount Shasta in Northern California.

Last week in Colorado, in the face of strong local opposition, a consortium of Vermont and Colorado developers abandoned plans to build a ski area 10 miles south of Steamboat Springs, which would have been called Catamount. In addition to the ski slopes, the developers planned 3,700 new homes and 1,000 hotel rooms.

"They had the resources and they had the permits," said Susan Otis, executive director of the Yampa Valley Land Trust. "But they knew that in the community there no longer was a desire to have a new ski area."

Census figures show that Colorado has the third-fastest growing population in the nation, after Nevada and Arizona.

"The fight over land use is really just starting, because you are talking of a burgeoning population of residents and visitors," said Diane Gansauer, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, a conservation group.

Pub Date: 1/19/99

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