Snodgrass, The North Village and CBMR

Good day readers,

The USA Today ran an article about Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s pending expansion onto Snodgrass Mountain and the development of North Village. Included are some interesting quotes from CBMR owners and management including John Norton – a guy who was around when the previous owners of the resort had plans for a massive 1800 unit expansion onto Snodgrass Mtn.

The Mueller’s new plan for Snodgrass is much smaller – about 1100 units – and has less than half of the original plan’s ski lifts. Opponents seem to come from the Town of Crested Butte and advocates live up the road in Mt. Crested Butte where sales tax dollars have increased since the Mueller’s bailed the failing ski resort out in 2004.

Channing Boucher

Trouble in Colorado ski country

MOUNT CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — The crooked mountain looming over this far-flung resort town is well-known to extreme skiers. Plenty of scary-steep, ultra-expert terrain draws the cream of the sport.

What the 12,162-foot peak lacks, say Crested Butte’s owners, are enough slopes for intermediate-level skiers, a resort’s bread and butter, that coveted lion’s share of vacationers.

Plans to remedy that by carving new ski runs on a nearby mountain has been a long-running battle here, familiar in today’s ski industry: whether demand and environmental impacts justify expansion on public land.

The ski industry touts its "green" initiatives. At least 16 resorts, including Crested Butte, offset 100% of the conventional power they use by buying credits for wind energy generated elsewhere. Crested Butte is switching to energy-efficient snowmaking guns and pushing energy conservation and recycling. It has one of the industry’s best bus systems so skiers can keep their vehicles parked.

But expansion — Crested Butte plans to apply for a federal permit this spring — is an overriding issue. Ski development is scarring national forests without a corresponding increase in skiers using new terrain, says Ben Doon, research director of Ski Area Citizens Coalition, which publishes an annual "report card" on resorts’ environmental performance.

Building lift towers and runs on undisturbed mountains harms streams, wildlife habitat and old growth forest, requires new roads in roadless areas and creates traffic and air pollution from resort villages, Doon says.

Green energy-saving programs are "window dressing" that mask "a shell game," says Hal Clifford, author of Downhill Slide, which chronicles the rise of corporate resort ownership in the last two decades.

Since 2000, the industry has had its best five years ever in skier numbers, but overall growth has been sluggish — less than 1% a year since 1978. So resorts try to compete for a static pool of skiers with new terrain and upscale commercial development. "I call it the on-mountain arms race," Clifford says. "There’s a sense you’ve got to have something new and shiny on your ski area pretty much every season that you can promote and use to attract people."

Many here want their resort to stay small and market its uniqueness, much of that due to the charm of Crested Butte, an 1880s mining town 3 miles away. Its downtown, a National Historic District, draws tourists year-round.

More than 1,000 Gunnison County residents signed a petition asking the U.S. Forest Service to reject the resort’s plan for new ski runs on nearby Snodgrass Mountain.

They say the mountain is more valuable left alone, for no-lift backcountry skiing, hiking and mountain biking — an "incredible amenity" accessible from the edge of town, says Vicki Shaw of the group Friends of Snodgrass.

The group says there’s no correlation between terrain expansion and skiing increases. "But that’s the way expansion has been sold," her husband, Chuck Shaw, says.

The Forest Service will study environmental impacts and whether development could raise the risk of avalanches and landslides on Snodgrass. The agency turned down an even larger plan in 1994 — 3,600 housing units and seven lifts vs. 1,100 units and three lifts in what residents now widely refer to as "Snodgrass Lite."

While recreation is part of the Forest Service’s mission, less than one-tenth of 1% of national forest land is leased to ski operators. "Having ski areas be viable as long as they’re within our environmental constraints is in our interest, we believe, and the nation’s interest," says Jim Bedwell, Forest Service director for recreation and heritage resources in Washington.

The citizens coalition’s latest scorecard issued in November gave Crested Butte an "F," mainly over plans to build on 300 undisturbed acres on Snodgrass. "We think it’s very skewed toward anti-growth," says Tim Mueller, who owns Crested Butte with his wife, Diane. The Muellers say new ski runs are crucial to the resort’s long-term profitability and the town’s economic prosperity.

The Muellers bought a fading, money-losing property in 2004 — ski visits had plunged, businesses in the town of Mount Crested Butte were suffering — and by all accounts turned it around. With $15 million plowed into better ski-slope grooming, more snow-making and faster lifts, "skier days" rebounded from 333,000 in 2003-04 to 412,000 last season. New hotels and shops are going up in this town of 700.

"The Muellers are trying to get everything done right on this mountain," Town Manager Joe Fitzpatrick says. "But our town runs off sales tax dollars, so tourism is key. For skiing to stay healthy here, we need to expand the terrain."

John Norton, a consultant hired by the Muellers, says many skiers think of Crested Butte as "a three-day mountain" where they exhaust intermediate runs over a long weekend. That’s not enough to draw vacationers to a remote resort — four hours by car from Denver’s airport — and keep them, he says.

Ski resorts with current or proposed expansions on public lands include Grand Targhee in Wyoming; White Pass, Crystal Mountain and 49 Degrees North in Washington; Mount Ashland in Oregon; Kirkwood in California; Bridger Bowl in Montana; and Durango Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Breckenridge in Colorado.

Doon and other critics say expansion is about real estate, not skiing: Once resorts win the go-ahead to add runs on public land, they reap huge profits developing, selling and managing private property at the base of a mountain.

"That’s how ski areas really make their money," Doon says.

North Village, a housing and commercial complex below Snodgrass, has been approved on land the Muellers own and could go forward with or without ski runs. However, the ability to market "ski in, ski out" access — walk out your door, step into skis, grab a lift — would bump up the value of homes and condos.

Without Snodgrass "our operations will be much more difficult," Tim Mueller says. "If you want to kill the ski industry, stop growth. It’s easy."

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