NORWOOD – The Norwood Ranger District announced this week that it would grant the Telluride Ski Co. a temporary special use permit to conduct a snow study in Upper Bear Creek this winter.
The announcement comes after the study received criticism during the public comment period by many who considered it as a step toward expanding the ski area’s boundary into Upper Bear Creek. Yet in a press release, District Ranger Judy Schutza stressed that granting the Ski Area permission for the Snow Study does not also grant it permission to expand its boundary – or, for that matter, to move forward with building a chairlift there, as many critics have contended.
“This decision does not authorize Telski to expand the ski area boundary into Upper Bear Creek. At this time, Telski has not submitted a formal expansion proposal to the Forest Service,” Schutza said.
Kathy Peckham, of the Forest Service Norwood office’s Recreation Department, explained that many of the comments the Forest Service received during the public comments period were ultimately deemed not substantive.
“Our process requires that we look at substantive issues when analyzing public comment.
By substantive, that means issues that have direct bearing on a proposal. So because the proposed action was whether or not to permit the snow study in Bear Creek – the ski area’s expansion into Bear Creek was not part of the proposed action – all comments coming in for or against a Bear Creak expansion were deemed not substantive,” she said.
The Snow Study, set to begin February 1 and end March 30, will give members of Telluride Ski Patrol the information they need to create an Avalanche Atlas, which will map and identify avalanche hazards in the avalanche-prone slopes of Upper Bear Creek. The permit area will be closed from 6-10 a.m. daily, as per a Forest Service Special Order closure, to enable ski patrol teams to gather data while no members of the public are in the area.
“The daily closure is necessary to protect the safety of both the snow study teams and backcountry skiers and snowboarders,” Schutza said.
The patrol’s work will revolve around analyzing the terrain, weather and snowpack in the area. According to the Snow Study Operating Plan, presented to the Forest Service by Telski’s Snow Safety Department this fall, these analyses would include traditional means of gathering data about the snowpack like measuring slope angles, digging snow pits and noting recent natural avalanche activity. But the plan also includes explosives testing, which would be limited to explosives placed by hand only and utilized on a minimal basis.
Telluride Snow Safety Director Craig Sterbenz said this week that while ski patrol teams will occasionally use explosives in an effort to better understand avalanche activity in the area, “a lot of what we’ll be doing is just mapping” the expansive Upper Bear Creek terrain included in the permit area. The authorized study area encompasses more than 1,500 acres of Forest Service land above Telluride, which was not reduced in size from the original proposal.
“When we do use explosives, we’ll make every effort to be done by the time the first people are getting off Lift 15” to go out the Backcountry Access Point and into Bear Creek in the morning, Sterbenz said.
And as the Forest Service press release reiterates, explosives will not be used for avalanche mitigation or control. “Backcountry skiers and snowboarders will still need to proceed with caution due to the inherent risks associated with backcountry travel. Telski will be required to notify and educate the public about the study through local media outlets, signage placed at the main entrance points into the study area, and the Telluride Ski Resort website,” the press release states.
While the immediate aim of the study is to arm Ski Patrol and Search and Rescue teams with better data about the terrain and snowpack in Upper Bear Creek, it will also inevitably provide Telski with information it would need were the Ski Area to formally propose expanding its boundary into the area.
“There are two reasons Telski is pursuing the snow study,” Telluride Ski Co. CEO Dave Riley told the Watch this week. “First, it will aid in search and rescue work by providing a much better understanding of the avalanche paths and avalanche forecasting for the upper Bear Creek terrain. Second, it will help inform the community and the ski company as to the long-range vision for the ski area.”
The Ski Resort is in the process of updating its Master Development Plan, as per the Forest Service’s request.
Riley added, however, that Telski has not turned in a proposal to expand into Bear Creek at this time. “The results of the snow study will be helpful in determining the feasibility of doing so in the future,” he said.