TELLURIDE –The Telluride Ski and Golf Co. has requested a special use permit allowing the company to offer guided ski and snowboard tours in the Upper Bear Creek sidecountry, but Town of Telluride officials have voiced concern that the proposal could violate a conservation easement that prohibits commercial activity in its Bear Creek Preserve in Lower Bear Creek.
Additionally, town officials voiced concerns about the administrative review process, in which the permit appears on track for approval by the U.S. Forest Service, according to documents obtained by The Watch through a public records request.
“We’re raising two issues,” Town Attorney Kevin Geiger confirmed.
The first concerns how the activity would be conducted “to make sure it protects and respects the conservation easement,” he said.
Secondly, “We feel it should be subject to a larger public permit scoping process,” he continued.
“The purpose of the guiding program is to ‘provide the public with additional quality, diverse skiing and riding experiences adjacent to the existing ski area with a trained guide,’” Telski Chief Executive Officer Dave Riley wrote in a letter submitted to the Forest Service in late November 2009 along with supplemental information about the proposed operation of guided services on Forest Service land located adjacent to the Telluride Ski Area Special Use Permit.
“We believe there is currently a demand and need for sidecountry guiding services as we have had the public request this service in the past,” he continued, using the term for terrain located outside a ski area’s permitted boundaries but made easily accessible by its chairlifts.
That plan requested a maximum of 500 service days during the operating season in order to conduct: full day trips that would include two to three runs in the Bear Creek drainage; half day trips including one run in the Bear Creek drainage; other private trips in the Bear Creek or Alta Lakes drainages; avalanche awareness clinics; and ski mountaineering routes such as K-12, the San Joaquin Couloir, Lena Basin or Little Wasatch areas.
“Prior to beginning the trip and at available opportunities during the trip, the guide will answer questions and provide information regarding the features, history, flora, fauna, etc. of the National Forest Lands,” the application notes.
The guide program would not operate any snowmobiles; each group would carry minimum gear “adequate for the party and an injured member for overnight survival or avalanche accident”; and helmets would be “encouraged but not required.”
“We hope to receive approval to offer this service to the public starting during the 2009/2010 ski season,” Riley, who at press time had not returned a phone call, noted.
The proposal may be on track for approval by means of a staff level administrative review, according to a letter dated Feb. 10 from Forest Service Norwood District Ranger Judy Schutza to the Town of Telluride.
“I am considering issuing the permit to [Telski] with the following important changes,” Schutza wrote, outlining ideas to address the concerns communicated to the Forest Service by the town and the San Miguel Conservation Foundation, which holds the conservation easement on the Bear Creek Preserve, in a meeting between the parties on Jan. 8.
Those ideas include limiting Telski’s use of Forest Service lands to 50 service days in the Alta area and 250 days in Upper Bear Creek.
Telski would be not be authorized to conduct tours from the Lower Bear Creek Gate at the top of Lift 9 because travel through the Bear Creek Preserve would be unavoidable; instead it could operate tours only from the Gold Hill, Palmyra Peak, and Alta Saddle Access gates.
Additionally, guides would be required to travel only on Forest Service lands to connect with Bear Creek Road, a county road that is not subject to the terms of the conservation easement in order to descend out of the Bear Creek Preserve. Schutza emphasized, in a telephone conversation Wednesday, that “final modifications” to the proposal are pending, and that it is premature “to involve the public” in discussions.
“This modified Telski application would attempt to have Telski use only the Wasatch Trail and the Bear Creek Road as the exclusive means of descending from Upper Bear Creek into the Bear Creek Preserve for a return to the Town of Telluride,” Geiger said, in a response to Schutza’s letter, adding that it remained unclear how guides could precisely determine the allowable route when extreme winter conditions obliterated it with snow, opining that they likely could not.
“How on earth do you find the route when it’s covered by three to seven feet of snow?” asked Hilary White, executive director of local conservation group Sheep Mountain Alliance, which opposes the proposal.
“I think the proposal is Telski’s first step of getting a foot in door to develop [the Bear Creek] area,” she continued. “We will do everything we can to oppose that effort.”
“Any additional people in that area, whether guided by so-called professionals or not, adds to the danger of those who enjoy the quiet, backcountry solitude of recreating in those lands.”
Geiger also noted in his letter to Schutza that the Wasatch Trail route is not the typical means of descent out of Bear Creek.
“It appears that this anticipated route will be a more challenging route with enhanced exposure to greater avalanche danger,” he wrote.
For his part, San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters, whose search and rescue operations now respond to incidents in Bear Creek and would continue to do so, according to Telski’s proposed plan, generally welcomed the idea.
“It would be great if everyone had a professional guide; a lot of people go up there who don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.
“We would really encourage that kind of service.”
Still, Masters said, the if the plan proceeds, he hopes that Telski’s clients will be required to purchase a backcountry use permit that allows the Sheriff’s Office to access state funding to pay for rescue costs.
According to Town Manager Frank Bell, the town is not categorically opposed to the idea of guided ski and snowboard tours in Bear Creek.
“If there’s a legitimate, reasonable, and effective action that would keep commercial activity out of the Bear Creek Preserve, we’re not necessarily opposed to it,” he said.
But, “It’s not realistic to assume that the guiding community actually will use the alternate route; they’ll do what their clients want them to do,” he said. “They’re going to go where their customers want.”
Additionally, “We’re not interested in having the Forest Service approve this administratively,” he said.
“Separate and apart from the merits of either the original or a modified Telski application, the Town believes that any [Forest Service] decision should include a public scoping process where the opinions and concerns of the community can be voiced by all stakeholders before any decision is rendered,” Geiger wrote.