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Forest Service OKs Vail Resorts’ plan to restore Keystone tundra

Deal keeps one of the country’s largest expansions on schedule
Construction companies work to clear the forest for a new chairlift and ski runs as part of a 555-acre expansion at Keystone’s Bergman Bowl, seen July 28. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The U.S. Forest Service is allowing Vail Resorts to continue building a new lift at Keystone after the company submitted a plan to repair tundra damaged by a temporary road that extended beyond permitting boundaries.

White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams on Thursday said he accepted Vail Resorts’ cure for improperly grading 2.5 acres outside of approved construction boundaries, including 1.5 acres above treeline in the fragile alpine zone. The company’s construction crews also filled a wetland creek with logs and graded over it to create a road crossing and did not save topsoil and vegetation for replanting after construction, all of which the agency found “were not consistent with Forest Service expectations.”

Fitzwilliams rescinded his order of noncompliance and canceled the cease-and-desist order he issued last month after Forest Service officials discovered the construction that had not been permitted in approvals for Keystone’s expansion into Bergman Bowl.

Vail Resorts hired an outside firm to develop the repair plan and keep one of the nation’s largest underway resort expansions on track to open this winter.

A forest recently cleared above the Outpost restaurant during the construction of a new chairlift for Bergman Bowl at Keystone ski area seen on July 28. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“Quite honestly, it’s the best restoration plan I’ve ever seen in my life. Even our staff are like ‘Oh my god,’” Fitzwilliams said. “The restoration plan submitted by Keystone is extremely detailed, thorough and includes all the necessary actions to insure the damage is restored as best as possible.”

The impacts to fragile alpine terrain by the unauthorized construction does require additional analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, but that can be done while the construction continues, Fitzwilliams said.

The agency reported the unpermitted construction in early July and Fitzwilliams forced Vail Resorts to halt construction in the bowl July 8. The two-year environmental review of the expansion plan approved earlier this year allowed construction of a 1,830-foot temporary road. That road above the Outpost restaurant was allowed to impact about a half acre of terrain so crews could build lift towers, a skier bridge and remove trees in the bowl, where Keystone plans to open 16 new trails on 555 acres for the 2022-23 season.

The road grading into the bowl actually disturbed 1.5 acres above treeline and an additional acre in the forest.

The Forest Service’s approval earlier this year required that construction crews avoid wetlands – like a creek in the bowl – to preclude the need for approval by the Army Corps of Engineers. The approval also required crews to use helicopters, not heavy ground machinery, to remove timber and to suspend ground-disturbing activities during periods of heavy rain.

Crews filled a creek with timber and used machinery instead of helicopters.

An 11-page Supplemental Information Report by White River forest officials and approved by Fitzwilliams on Aug. 2 – part of additional review of the unauthorized construction allowed after two years of analysis of the expansion plan under the National Environmental Policy Act – noted myriad impacts of the illegal construction to the alpine environment.

Ultimately, the agency found that the impacts of the unpermitted road were largely predicted in the environmental review that led the Forest Service to approve the Bergman Bowl expansion. For example, the NEPA analysis found that construction and development in the bowl “may affect but is not likely to adversely affect” the protected Canadian lynx.

“It is not anticipated that these additional impacts to lynx habitat would change the determination beyond, ‘may affect, but is not likely to adversely affect,’” reads the agency’s report.

The analysis of the repairs will require scrutiny under NEPA, but that review and decision will be limited to the unauthorized construction and impacts, not the expansion as a whole.

“Some level of new decision will be required,” Fitzwilliams said. “We haven’t figured that out yet.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.