TELLURIDE – Telluride Ski and Golf Co. CEO Dave Riley told the Board of County Commissioners last week that he would seek closure of the backcountry access gates leading into Bear Creek were Telski to remain unauthorized to manage the notoriously dangerous terrain, and subsequently be sued as the result of an incident there.
“The first lawsuit we get I’m going to be camped out on your doorstep to get those gates closed because I’m not going to spend a dime defending the ski area for a Forest Service access gate into lands we have no ability to manage,” he said.
The remarks came during the commissioners’ scheduled meeting at which they lent their conditioned support for a controversial snow study that, as proposed by Telski, would map 1,500 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in Upper Bear Creek. The study would serve the dual purposes of helping to increase safety for rescuers responding to events in Bear Creek, and to determine whether the terrain is suitable for inclusion in a possible expansion of the permitted ski area.
“[T]he County acknowledges that the out-of-boundaries ski slopes accessible from the ski area into Bear Creek pose a significant safety concern; anything that can be done to promote the safety of the area must be considered,” the commissioners stated in a draft letter they reviewed during the meeting before approving it for submission to the Forest Service.
The study is critical, according to Riley, because he foresees increasing numbers of skiers and snowboarders, including the under-skilled and unprepared, being enticed into the experts-only territory now that the Revelation Bowl chairlift installed this past summer has shortened the hike required to reach the Gold Hill backcountry access gate.
“What I see out there is that Bear Creek is a magnet for skiers, and, given that, I personally think that it should be managed,” said Riley.
In order for Telski to do that snow management, the land would have to become part of its permit area, he said.
“I personally think that it’s naïve to think that over the long-term doing nothing and hoping for the best is actually going to work.”
The BOCC strongly supports the study from a safety standpoint.
“I just want to reiterate out loud that I think anything we can do for safety is a good idea,” said BOCC Chair Joan May.
However, “Our conditioned support of the [snow study] proposal is not to be construed as support for any expansion of the current permitted ski area,” the commissioners’ letter clarified.
Among several recommendations included in the letter, the BOCC asked the Forest Service to consider reducing the size of the study area.
As conceived by Telski, that area would include Nellie Mine, Delta Bowl, Lena Basin, San Joaquin Ridge and the East Fork of Bear Creek. Additionally, the company would install and maintain a remote weather station near the top of Waterfall Chute as part of the study.
“We ask that the Forest Service give serious consideration to limiting the area of the snow study to those areas potentially affected by skiers from the existing and proposed gates, and that the East Fork of Bear Creek be eliminated from the study. This would reduce the amount of public lands that would be closed off to the public during the snow study period,” the letter read.
“I’m still completely baffled as to the boundaries,” said May.
While the study would allow for valuable information about avalanche hazards in Bear Creek to be collected and applied in order to help minimize risk to backcountry responders, it would also aid Telski in determining whether or not to pursue expansion into the area.
“This is more than just a snow study; it’s also informing the ski area as to whether we should consider this other area for expansion,” Riley told the commissioners.
“I don’t know whether that’s something the ski area wants to take on until we know what the scope of that work would include.”
The Forest Service originally set for Dec. 12 the deadline for public comment on its proposal to issue Telski a temporary special use permit in order to conduct the study. The permit would be good for one year and could be renewed for another term if necessary.
At a recent intergovernmental meeting, however, Judy Schutza, Norwood District Ranger, agreed to extend the period for public comment until Dec. 19 after hearing a substantial number of complaints, including those from the BOCC, that that the deadline provided insufficient time for community input.
According to Forest Service policy, however, the agency did not need to seek public comment for this type of permit and, instead, could have conducted an internal, administrative review.
During last week’s meeting Commissioner Elaine Fischer, noting the absence of a Forest Service representative there, questioned whether a similar snow study to that being proposed for Upper Bear Creek had ever been done outside the boundaries of a permitted ski area.
“I’m sorry, again, that the Forest Service isn’t here because I think I’d feel a little bit more comfortable if I knew they had done this someplace else and they could say, ‘Oh –we did this in Aspen,” she said.
Overall, the snow study would be similar to that done in Prospect Basin, Riley said.
“It’s largely a mapping exercise and a forecasting exercise where you try to figure out when the weather does this, this is what happens in these places. You identify the start zones, the run-off zones, the typical avalanche paths.”
To do so, ski patrol teams would measure slope angles, dig snow pits, and observe recent natural avalanche activity to gather data, as well as hand-place explosives to trigger avalanches in order to further analyze the snowpack.
The commissioners are concerned about the effects these triggered slides could have on wildlife and vegetation.
“Bears are what I worry about,” said Commissioner Art Goodtimes. “There’s a lot of bear dens up there, a whole lot of them.”
And given that it is nearly January, the commissioners also asked the Forest Service to postpone the start of the snow study until next winter. The reason, they said, was so backcountry users would be inconvenienced for only one season were it necessary to continue the study into winter 2009/2010.
“I think there’s a lot we can gain even if we start a little later than we like; and the sooner we get on with it, potentially the sooner we can get over with it,” said Riley.
In the end, the fate of the backcountry access gate into Bear Creek may well be sealed not by litigation, but by the results of the snow study if the Forest Service approves Telski’s permit request.
If it is discovered that snow management cannot satisfactorily mitigate the dangers posed in Upper Bear Creek, “We may end up in the position of advocating to close those gates,” said Riley.