Up the Creek

Environmentalists are angling to stop a new Winter Park road.

Get ready for a cutthroat battle. The Winter Park ski area wants to build a road on public land along a creek, saying it's needed to evacuate injured skiers. Environmentalists say the unpaved road would be nothing less than a ski trail to some thrilling backcountry runs on the area known as Vasquez Cirque and would endanger Little Vasquez Creek. And they're trying to block the project by using a fish with some powerful political clout: the Colorado river cutthroat trout.

For now, Vasquez Cirque is a challenging 435-acre "out-of-bounds" area for expert skiers who are willing to trek 30 to 45 minutes to get to the remote spot and accept the risks of skiing in a location that the ski patrol might not always be able to get to. The proposed road would run along the base of Vasquez Cirque.

Environmentalists fear that if Winter Park is allowed to build what it calls an "egress route," the door will be opened to more development in the pristine area.

"This road might be the first step toward lift expansion," says Rocky Smith of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, "which would really hurt the cutthroat."

David Nickum of Colorado Trout Unlimited agrees. "I never bought the notion that this was a small project," he says. "They can throw whatever name they want on this 'egress route,' but I call it a ski trail."

Winter Park insists that the road is not part of a larger expansion. "We're not in a hot hurry to do anything high-impact on Vasquez Cirque which costs a lot of money right now," says Joan Christensen, a spokeswoman for the ski resort.

However, Christensen admits that Vasquez Cirque could help business. She points to customer surveys that indicate a need for more extreme ski runs at the resort and feels that Vasquez Cirque would satisfy that desire. "I won't dismiss the possibility [of building lifts on Vasquez Cirque] in the future," she says.

The City of Denver, which owns Winter Park, hopes to attract more business by promoting the area. Denver Parks and Recreation director B.J. Brooks, who sits on the Winter Park Recreational Association board, says Vasquez Cirque is important to the resort's profitability. "It's all about competition," says Brooks. "There is a big demand for extreme terrain, and the Cirque would attract that market share."

And Christensen says concerns about the cutthroat trout, which breeds in Little Vasquez Creek, are unfounded. "The Forest Service has said that the cutthroat population in Little Vasquez is stable," she says. "All we're talking about is thinning some trees."

Not exactly. The proposed road would clear a swath 1.8 miles long and thirty feet wide. Nickum worries that cutting down so many trees might increase runoff, which in turn could increase sedimentation and water velocity in the creek--two factors detrimental to young cutthroat, which can suffocate under sediment or get washed downstream by a strong current.

Dr. Robert Behnke, a professor of fisheries biology at Colorado State University, says that he saw a situation in Montana where a cutthroat population was wiped out after the clear-cutting of trees. Although the Winter Park proposal is not as radical as that, Behnke says, runoff from even the most seldom-used roads can affect sediment input and water velocity. "Cutthroat are very sensitive to environmental changes," he says. "They're an indicator species, like the canary in the coal mine."

Because the cutthroat population has already been pushed to the brink of extinction in Little Vasquez Creek, Nickum says, even a small change could end up being disastrous. "I'm not saying that Winter Park's trail is definitely going to affect the cutthroat adversely," he says, "but I just want to make sure that the Forest Service looks at it very carefully before it approves [the resort's] plan."

The problem is that the Forest Service already has. Corey Wong, the temporary Sulfur District ranger, says his predecessor, George Edwards, approved a Winter Park master plan in 1985 that gave preliminary approval to Winter Park's expansion into Vasquez Cirque. "But," says Wong, "back when we did our environmental analysis in the Eighties, we really didn't have any depth of knowledge about the cutthroat."

Because of its fragility, the Colorado river cutthroat trout's numbers have been on the decline in recent years. The trout, which gets its name from the red coloring around its throat, is a relative of Colorado's state fish, the greenback cutthroat, and is highly valued by environmentalists and anglers alike. And the Little Vasquez population represents one of only twenty or so natural populations remaining in the region. The fish is on the Forest Service's "sensitive species" list and has been earmarked by the Colorado Division of Wildlife as a "species of special concern."

In the meantime, the cutthroat is endangering Winter Park's plans. Because of the resort's preliminary agreement with the Forest Service, officials thought that the road at the base of Vasquez Cirque was a done deal. However, if the Forest Service determines that the Vasquez Creek cutthroat would be adversely affected by the construction of the road, Winter Park says it will have to curtail its promotion of the area because of inadequate emergency access.

Environmentalists aren't buying Winter Park's explanation that the road is solely an emergency precaution. "Do you really need a thirty-foot-wide trail to evacuate injured skiers on a snowmobile?" asks Smith. "I don't think so."

Winter Park has assured opponents that heavy machinery will not be used in building the road. But Nickum says the last time Winter Park did construction on Vasquez Cirque, in the mid-Eighties, the cutthroat population crashed from 3,000 to no more than 400. And while he admits that there is no absolute proof that the construction was to blame, he says it would be quite a coincidence if the two events weren't linked.

Wong, who has been the temporary district ranger for only a month and admits to being relatively uninformed about the situation, says he plans to send out a fisheries specialist next week to take a closer look at the condition of Vasquez Creek and the cutthroat before he signs off on Winter Park's road project.

But that's not enough for Colorado Trout Unlimited. The group wants the Forest Service to open a full-blown National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) investigation, a process that could delay Winter Park's plan to increase skiing activity next season on Vasquez Cirque.

"One field visit isn't enough to determine what the situation is up there," says Nickum. "NEPA was brought to pass in order to cover situations just like this. I want them to open it up to the public, lay everything on the table and make a careful decision." But Nickum fears that won't happen. "The ethic of the Forest Service is geared toward multiple use," he says. "It doesn't like to say no to ski areas."

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