Last week's Q&A with Mt. Crested Butte Mayor William Buck raised the ire of several of his opponents on the issue of Crested Butte Mountain Resort's proposed expansion onto Snodgrass Mountain. Buck said that the U.S. Forest Service decision not to move into the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to evaluate the expansion was a curveball that was not reflective of the majority. Others begged to differ.
After the jump is the flip-side interview with one such Crested Butte resident: Friends of Snodgrass Mountain spokesperson Chuck Shaw.
On the Edge: What is the background of Friends of Snodgrass Mountain?
Shaw: I read Hal Clifford's Downhill Slide, an expose on the ski industry, and had something of an epiphany. The book makes the case that past terrain expansions have failed to increase skier visits. The way Friends of Snodgrass formed, the president of the ski area wrote a column in 2002 saying that the expansion of Snodgrass was a foregone conclusion. People on the street were saying, 'I don't think it's a good idea.'
On the Edge: The group must be pleased with the Forest Service's decision, right?
Shaw: It really was the only logical conclusion. It's not much of a mountain, it's more of a hump. Snodgrass is valuable as it sits. It provides wildlife habitat and a game corridor. We talk about how valuable our unimpeded viewsheds are for tourism here. And it has great receational value because of its accessibility. It's the place people go before or after work for a quick bike ride or hike or ski.
On the Edge: One of your key arguments against the proposed expansion is the environmental impact. What would it be?
Shaw: Because of its low elevation, it's heavily forested. The proposed expansion would cut down about 200 acres of trees. There would be extreme earthwork, and the mountain is infamously unstable. It also has a pretty rich hydrology. They'd have to install aggressive surface and subsurface drainage systems to get the snowmaking snowmelt off it in the springtime.
On the Edge: Mayor Buck argues the expansion is necessary to reverse a declining trend in Crested Butte's skier-days and the area's population. I take it you disagree?
Shaw: The expansion would not get the ski area what they need. Only about 35 percent of the mountain would be intermediate and most of that would be steep intermediate.There would be more black and double black than intermediate. And Snodgrass is pretty far from Crested Butte Mountain -- it would take four lift rides and 45 minutes to get to the top. It would be like riding Breckenridge.
Skier visits are flat industry-wide. The ski area talks about the peak of 1997-98, but that was the peak of their 'ski free' program where they gave away 100,000 free lift tickets. Their skier visits dropped dramatically as a function of the termination of that program.
On the Edge: Mayor Buck dubbed expansion opponents as 'a vocal minority' of about 15 percent in Gunnison County. What's your take?
On the Edge: What's next?
Shaw: It's pretty early in the process. The economy is unsettling. Our friends and neighbors, some of them are worried and fearful. I think some of them think an expansion would bail us out, but Snodgrass would not bail us out of our economic woes. There's a lot of things that could be done to the existing ski mountain to improve operations.
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The proposed expansion is 276 acres -- that's pretty small. Other resorts have implemented far bigger expansions and seen no bumb in skier visits. Winter Park is a good example. Vail's another. So is Keystone.
On the Edge: Anything else, Chuck?
Shaw: There's a significant misunderstanding what the NEPA and pre-NEPA process is. The purpose of pre-NEPA is to identify major problems -- potential showstoppers -- if the project enters NEPA. The goal is to save the Forest Servicde and the local community a lot of time and energy. That's what happened here in 1996 -- the proposal to expand onto Snodgrass actually went into NEPA in 1994. It went into a review process with eight different agencies and all of the local governments. It was a large consumption of people-hours, and the process uncovered serious problems. The owners of the ski area at that time chose to pull the application rather than throw money at it.