Updated: December 4, 2009 at 12:00 am
CRESTED BUTTE• This is, literally, the end of the road.
Twenty-five miles up an icy highway from Gunnison, surrounded on three sides by some of the most beautiful and rugged mountains in Colorado, there’s one way in and out of Crested Butte in the winter.
Skiing is a way of life, in a rustic town that has attracted hippies, drop-outs and ski bums for generations, with a mountain known for deep powder and double-diamond runs that challenge skills and test the soul.
Crested Butte Mountain Resort is at the center of a fierce debate that belies the beauty and tranquility. The resort wants to expand to nearby Snodgrass Mountain, and what was supposed to be a groomed path to approval has hit what skiers call a massive yard sale: The U.S. Forest Service, citing community divisions and environmental issues, last month denied the project, declining to commence a review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Forest Service says the decision is not reviewable, though the resort, some local officials and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, have urged the agency to reconsider. The resort says they’ll sue if the decision is not reversed.
The stakes may be greater than the future of condo construction in one remote resort town.
The Forest Service in recent decades has given Colorado’s ski resorts carte blanche to expand, as places like Vail and Breckenridge became sprawling winter playgrounds for visitors from around the world, who can spend days exploring without doing the same run twice.
The denial in Crested Butte marks the first time the agency has outright denied an expansion, without going through a NEPA review, and the industry is worriedly asking if the decision means a change in direction.
“I think the Crested Butte decision is really unprecedented, as far as it goes and the breadth of the decision and a complete lack of willingness to engage the public in the conversation,” said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of trade group Colorado Ski Country USA. “The entire industry that operates under special use permits is very concerned about this decision.”
In Crested Butte, meanwhile, some are asking, when is a big ski mountain big enough?
Crested Butte is actually two towns.
There’s Crested Butte, the hardscrabble burg founded by coal miners in the 1860s, invaded by hippies in the 1970s, ski bums in the ‘80s and retirees in the ‘90s. It’s a relaxed town of 1,651, up from 878 in 1990.
Grateful Dead music floats out of a pizza place built out of an old mining cabin. Boutiques and fine restaurants line Elk Avenue, in a quaint downtown of restored Victorian buildings.
When two town council candidates – “Bear” and “Ninja” – tied in last month’s election, they settled the contest with paper-scissors-rock, according to the Nov. 27 Crested Butte News, a weekly newspaper. Eight of 23 pages in that edition were devoted to the Snodgrass controversy.
Then there is Mount Crested Butte. Home to 848 people – and second home and vacation destination to many more – a few miles up the valley, next to the ski resort. It was incorporated in the 1970s, and looks like many other places that were a ski resort first and a town second, with hotels, condos and mansions on the hillside and bars and restaurants in the base area.
The rivalry between the towns goes back far before Snodgrass became an issue.
“Mount Crested Butte is economically independent,” said the resort town’s mayor, William Buck. “Gunnison is economically independent. Crested Butte is economically dependent and they don’t get it.”
Without the ski resort, Crested Butte would be empty in the winter, he said, a fact many in the town admit. But the town has tried to market itself as more than a seasonal crash pad for lifties or a night spot for skiers.
“We’ve really tried to preserve the quality of life and the town aspect of things,” said Alan Bernholtz, who stepped down this year after four years as mayor and six on the town council. “People want to come to a town that’s real. We’ve always had that and it’s been a really good thing for us.”
So when the ski resort and Mount Crested Butte said they needed expansion to survive, not everyone in town was convinced.
The ski resort has had its eyes on Snodgrass for more than 25 years.
Humped and mostly tree-covered, it rises to 11,142 feet, east of the ski resort on the far side of Mount Crested Butte. Previous owners had approval in 1982 to build lifts there, though the plan was dropped. The resort tried again in the mid-90s, but abandoned the plan.
While other Colorado resorts have seen skier visits increase over the past decade, Crested Butte’s have dropped by 30 percent since 1997-98, from 549,000 to in 1997-98 to 360,00 last year, said Daren Cole, vice president of sales and marketing.
Part of the reason is geography – four hours from the Front Range and a major airport, it’s tough to get to, with plenty of skiing in-between. But resort officials say another factor is a lack of intermediate runs, to give families and aging skiers a chance to spend three or four days exploring the mountain.
“If you look at families, at older populations, at people coming into the sport, it’s that kind of intermediate terrain that keeps you viable,” Cole said. Snodgrass would more than double the amount of intermediate and advanced terrain, with 262 acres served by four lifts, the resort says.
“You see the expansions in Telluride, Breckenridge, Vail. They all have gotten bigger,” said Buck, the mayor of Mount Crested Butte. “We can’t compete. We’re smaller to begin with and we don’t have the ability to expand. How can we stay competitive?”
Tim and Diane Mueller bought the resort, which had been limping along in bankruptcy, in 2004. The Muellers have invested $13 million in on-mountain improvements, while $137 million has been spent on the base area, $109 million in the area around the base. The North Village, a proposed neighborhood up against Snodgrass Mountain, would involve an $830 million investment.
Nov. 5, Charles Richmond, forest supervisor of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests, informed resort officials their expansion was being denied an environmental review.
Richmond cited “polarization in the community” and “organization opposition to development of Snodgrass,” as well as opposition from the city of Crested Butte, unstable soils, avalanche concerns and impacts to hiking, biking and back-country skiing on Snodgrass. Resort officials say they were blind-sided.
“They halted any public process and public involvement and basically made a decision, one man or a group of individuals, behind closed doors,” said Ethan Mueller, son of Tim and Diane Mueller. Last year, the Muellers sold ownership to CNL Lifestyle Properties, but they still run it.
But the Friends of Snodgrass Mountain, formed in 2005 to oppose the expansion, say the resort shouldn’t have been surprised.
“Yes it is divisive. It was the first time in the ‘70s. It was the second time in the ‘90s and it is the third time in the 2000s,” said Vicki Shaw, one of the organizers of the group.
She said opponents aren’t against the ski resort, and in fact she and her husband ski the mountain 60 days a year. But she questions whether the harm it would cause Snodgrass would be justified.
“Why is it after all the terrain that’s been added in Colorado, why would ski areas think more terrain is going to help the community?” she said. “I question the ski industry even assuming that more expansions are going to help them. They need to figure out how to get more people, not more acreage.”
Joyce Lamb is as conflicted as the community on the expansion.
“Do I really want to see a ski area there? Probably not,” said Lamb, working at The Mountain Store in Crested Butte.
But she has been here for 32 years, and remembers the town in the 1970s, when there was “nothing” here. If expansion is key to the resort’s survival, she said, so be it.
“The bottom line is the town does need the ski area. At some point, maybe the ski area needs that,” she said.
Since the Forest Service decision, both opponents and supporters of the expansion have claimed public support is on their side. The Crested Butte/Mount Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce did an online survey, reporting that 83 percent of people favor an environmental review of the expansion. Resort officials characterize opponents as a “vocal minority.”
But Bernholtz, the former Crested Butte mayor, said the town held a public meeting and 49 of 50 people who spoke were against the expansion. The council ultimately sent a letter saying there wasn’t enough public support for expansion.
“It’s fairly close. The community is really divided. It’s not an 80 to 20 split at all,” Bernholtz said.
Leah Williams, sworn in as Crested Butte mayor 11 days after the denial, is trying to walk a neutral path.
“In small towns, sometimes we get hung up on these issues and get so divisive about them,” she said. “If you look at the greater scheme, they’re really not that big.”
Despite the strained relationship between some in town and the resort, she said they remain dependent on each other here.
“From down here, you look up at that mountain and thank God the ski mountain is there. You get up there and look down at this town and say, ‘Thank God the town is there,’” she said.
The resort and its supporters have held rallies in Crested Butte and at the Forest Service’s regional office in Denver. They plan to continue pressing for a reversal of the decision.
“The agency’s premature decision on Snodgrass is of concern to all resorts that operate on public land,” wrote Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, in a Nov. 13 letter to the Forest Service. “It has deeply shaken our members’ faith that the Forest Service will follow the process established by law.”
Calls to Richmond, the forest supervisor, were referred to Forest Service spokeswoman Lee Ann Loupe.
She said the agency received many comments leading up to its decision, in the “pre-NEPA” phase of the project.
“We haven’t been keeping track of numbers, tabbing for and against. We’ve just been reading them and respecting the comments,” she said.
The decision to cancel the NEPA review was Richmond’s, she said, made in consultation with his supervisors and others in the agency.
“There wasn’t any one factor that weighed more than another. We made it very clear to Crested Butte Mountain Resort as long as we talked that they need to be working closely with the community with both pro and anti supporters to craft a proposal that addresses their suggestions,” she said.
Amidst the furor and long angry letters in the newspaper, one person wrote a short one, a plea for calm.
“Our valley will not be ‘ruined’ if Snodgrass is left alone, or if it is developed,” wrote Keith Bauer. “What would ultimately destroy the spirit of Paradise is the inability to recognize and respect each other’s values and opinions.”
“Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath.”