If you go

What: Eldora Mountain Resort expansion informational sessions

When/where: 5 to 8 p.m. March 25 at the Nederland Community Center, 750 Colo. 72, Nederland; 5 to 8 p.m. March 26 at the West Senior Center, 909 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder

More info: To read the U.S. Forest Service draft Environmental Impact Statement and comments on Eldora's planned expansion, go to eldoraeis.com.

Controversy that has simmered for several years around expansion plans for Eldora Mountain Resort is rekindling as the U.S. Forest Service has completed a draft of its voluminous analysis on the ski area's plans.

The 594-page study was made public two weeks ago, initiating a 45-day public comment period which concludes April 14. Informational meetings are set for March 25 in Nederland and March 26 in Boulder.

The draft EIS, as it is known, was compiled by the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland-Boulder Ranger District. In its preparation, the Forest Service collected and considered roughly 1,400 public comments.

Resort spokesman Rob Linde, responding to questions about Eldora's plans by email, said, "The resort will not remain competitive without the proposed improvements. Like any other business, the ski area needs to modernize and provide a competitive product offering to meet consumer demand.

"This includes longer runs, modern lifts and a variety of skiable terrain."

The proposed expansion would likely take three to five years to complete.

The heart of Eldora's proposal is a plan for 15 new ski trails totaling about 58 acres, creating about 57 acres of new tree and gladed skiing areas and modifications to 43 acres of existing tree and gladed skiing across five areas.

It calls for two new chairlifts, the four-or-six-person Jolly Jug chairlift on the front side and the six-person Placer chairlift on the back, or north, side.

Eldora’s planned expansion (click to enlarge)
Eldora's planned expansion (click to enlarge) (Daily Camera)

An improved, high-speed Challenge chairlift is planned take the place of the existing Challenge and Cannonball lifts. The Corona lift would also be replaced.

Also in Eldora's plans are snowmaking capabilities across about 58 acres on all new traditional trails -— excluding the gladed terrain — and trail widening on four popular existing trails.

The resort's intention is also to remodel The Lookout guest facilities, built in 1972, from 7,700 square feet to 9,700 square feet. Plans call for building a new on-mountain 16,000- to 20,000-square-foot facility at the top of Challenge Mountain, which would accommodate up to 850 seats.

Forest Service sees three alternatives

The area addressed in the study includes 615 acres of U.S. Forest Service land and 435 acres of private land. And, while the Forest Service only has jurisdiction over the federally owned land, the agency analyzed the entire area for its direct, indirect and cumulative effects.

As the environmental impact study's executive summary points out, its analysis balances widely divergent mandates — meeting the needs and expectations of resort guests to enhance their fun and safety on the slopes, while also addressing issues such as vegetation management, improving forest health conditions and even reducing the spread of noxious weeds.

The study examines three alternative scenarios, and the first is to do nothing.

Lukas Gille, 4, appears to be visualizing his next run down the mountain at Eldora Mountain Resort on Friday.
Lukas Gille, 4, appears to be visualizing his next run down the mountain at Eldora Mountain Resort on Friday. (Cliff Grassmick / Daily Camera)

"Alternative 2," as it's known, would push Eldora's north-side boundary toward Middle Boulder Creek, expanding its special use permit area by 86 acres in the Placer area.

"Alternative 3" proposes adjusting the ski area boundary exclusively on the southern side, boosting its special use permit area by only 18 acres at the Jolly Jug glades. Both alternatives 2 and 3 would also create another 560 parking spaces on private land.

The draft document does not advocate for, or indicate a preference for, one alternative over another.

Linde said Eldora's preference would be to be approved for its expansion as originally proposed, which combines elements of alternatives 2 and 3. Forest Supervisor Glenn Casamassa can, in fact, render a final decision which does just that.

"A combination of alternatives 2 and 3 provides for the best skiing experience for the guest," Linde said. He added, "It also represents the highest and best use of the land for recreational purposes."

When the Forest Service accepted Eldora's most recent master plan in February 2011, it sparked opposition from a group of environmental organizations and local residents, who were particularly concerned that an expansion north to the southern banks of Middle Boulder Creek would have a negative effect on wildlife that thrive on the densely forested slopes leading to the creek. The group called itself the Middle Boulder Creek Coalition, and its members included University of Colorado anthropology professor Payson Sheets.

Critic argues 'clear and present danger'

Sheets last week wrote to the Boulder County Board of County Commissioners, urging them to oppose any expansion of the resort beyond its current boundaries.

"When a clear and present danger is so easily perceived, and can be avoided, it should be avoided," Sheets advised the commissioners.

In an interview, Sheets — who owns homes in both Boulder and Eldora, and remembers playing by the creek in Eldora as a 4-year-old — has numerous concerns with both expansion scenarios.

"In both cases, the expansion would result in a deterioration in water quality ... . All of us in the coalition are concerned about water quality," said Sheets, who added that damage to vegetation and wildlife are also feared.

Sheets expressed particular concern about the potential northward expansion to Middle Boulder Creek, which he said would disrupt a west-to-east wildlife corridor.

"They would cut that off, and destroy that natural habitat," Sheets said. "To me, that is very painful, of course. What they want to do is make more money. As I balance things, I want them to be happy and to make money, but not at this terrible expense of ruining the ecological integrity of that zone."

But Linde said the study "indicates that there would be no appreciable negative impact on wildlife, and any possible impacts would be mitigated."

As for water quality, Linde noted that the study thoroughly addresses that element, and said, "There will be a minimum amount of grading in the area, and short-term impacts are negligible. And there will be no long-term effect on the water quality."

Sheets said he and other coalition members favor an "infill" strategy, by which Eldora might make improvements within its existing boundaries, "as long as they do it in a responsible way. They could pack more skiers in, sell more tickets and make more money, but they don't destroy that beautiful habitat of ecological integrity and the don't do major damage to water quality."

Nederland resident David Nitsch said he has only read the executive summary of the Forest Service's analysis, but he nevertheless has strong opinions of Eldora's plans. Like Sheets, he would rather see the resort make improvements within its existing footprint. He described skiers in western Boulder County as somewhat of a captive market.

"I mean, there are people who want to ski so bad, they will vote with their wallet and spend their money even at a place that they don't want to go," he said. "Where else are we going to go? Are we going to go drive to Winter Park? I don't think so."

He contended that "90 percent" of Nederland-area residents oppose Eldora's expansion.

But fellow Nederland resident Bill Ikler, wilderness chairman of the Indian Peaks Group of the Sierra Club, disagreed with that assessment, saying he believes public sentiment in town is roughly evenly split. The Indian Peaks Group issued a press release Saturday that did not endorse any alternative advanced by the Forest Service, and instead argued that the resort's improvements could all be made within its current boundaries.

County could seek extension for response

The Forest Service's Eldora draft is also being reviewed within Boulder County government by the transportation, land use, and parks and open space departments. The county's focus on the proposal has been slower to gel than might otherwise have been the case, due to continued heavy attention to flood recovery issues.

"We will be getting together as a staff in little over a week to consolidate our thoughts, speak with the commissioners, and then get a formal response out by the April 15 deadline," said Peter Fogg, manager of the long-range planning team for the land use department. "If it looks like more time is needed, or the commissioners request it, we may ask for an extension for our response."

Just one example of questions county officials have is regarding a proposed bridge to be installed across Middle Boulder Creek at the foot of the Placer area, connecting to County Road 130, just east of the junction with the Hessie and Fourth of July roads.

"Is that going to require some maintenance on that road from the west end of Eldora to that bridge? Because right now, it is not maintained in the winter," Fogg said. "Right now, there are just questions where we need some more clarification."

Speaking of the overall proposal, Fogg said, "It's a significant change to the area, and we understand the reasons for that. The commissioners recognize the importance and uniqueness of having that facility in Boulder County, in terms of economic and a recreational opportunity.

"We want to look at it from the perspective of, if something is going to happen, can it be done with the least impact on the environmental values, the economics of the area and potential impacts on the roads and transportation questions?"

Chuck Howe, chairman of the city of Boulder's Water Resources Advisory Board, said the group will take up the Eldora issue at its meeting Monday night, but that no immediate action on it is anticipated by the group.

'Modest changes' for Eldora

Karen Roth, a forest environmental coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service, said the meetings of March 25 and 26 are not public hearings or opportunities to make public comment — and that all public comment must be made exclusively in writing prior to April 15.

"We expect there will be approximately a 20-minute presentation starting around 5:30 p.m., and then we'll probably just break up into groups with maps, and looking at all that," Roth said.

"I would call it more of an informational meeting, to help them understand the EIS draft, and anything that they might question or not understand, to help them make more informed comments."

Sheets had complained that 45 days seemed a very short time in which to digest and fully comment upon such a complex document.

"If they want to write that in their comments, they can, and we'll consider that," Roth said.

Linde said the process allows for adequate public input.

"The public process has been ongoing by the USFS for several years," Linde said. "The USFS has made invitations for public comment and allowed for recommendations and comments through hosted public meetings, public online comments and letters" about the proposed changes.

At the close of the public comment period in April, the Forest Service will begin work on a final version of the environmental impact study, plus a draft of its decision on the expansion proposal. That will open another 45-day window at which time people can submit objections to the draft decision for the Forest Service to consider.

A final decision on Eldora's proposal, Roth said, should then come early in 2015.

Linde is hoping it goes in the resort's favor.

"Eldora Mountain Resort has been an outstanding recreational resource for the greater Boulder area," he said. "These modest changes will allow the ski area to move forward to meet the recreational needs of our community."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or brennanc@dailycamera.com.