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San Juan National Forest approves Purgatory’s Ice Creek project

The 45-acre expansion will add a new ski lift and beginner trails
The U.S. Forest Service has approved Purgatory Resort’s Ice Creek Project, which will add 45 acres of low and intermediate skiing terrain to the ski area. However, construction will not begin for some time as the ski area targets other projects, such as an expansion of parking, said Dave Rathbun, Purgatory Resort’s general manager. (Courtesy of Purgatory Resort)

Purgatory Resort can construct its Ice Creek project, but must first finish uncompleted restoration projects after a U.S. Forest Service decision.

San Juan National Forest approved Purgatory Resort’s Ice Creek project March 15 allowing the resort to add 45 acres of beginner and intermediate skiing terrain to the ski area. The project, which was initially proposed in 2008 as part of an extensive improvement plan, will feature new trails, a lift and improve snowmobile access.

The decision to approve the project by Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick was made after objections by environmental groups and snowmobile groups. Mountain Capital Partners also filed an objection based on Forest Service requirements. While the project has been cleared, Purgatory Resort has no immediate plans to begin development as it prioritizes other projects.

“We’re quite happy and pleased,” said Dave Rathbun, Purgatory Resort’s general manager. “(The Ice Creek project) is a need that Purgatory identified quite a long time ago and it’s a nice piece that fits in between our never-ever terrain and then getting beginners to the next step.”

The Ice Creek project will create four new beginner-intermediate trails at the northern end of the ski area which will be serviced by the approximately 3,400-foot-long Ice Creek lift. The new lift will seat three people and will be powered by buried power lines. Two new access roads will also allow for maintenance of the lift.

The snowmobile access trail near Hermosa Park Road will also see rerouting and grading to improve safety and limit conflict between skiers and snowmobiles.

In all, Purgatory Resort will clear approximately 25.9 acres of vegetation and disturb about 38 acres of land for the project.

“We’re kind of light on our low-intermediate terrain and this will fill that gap nicely,” Rathbun said.

Purgatory Resort’s Ice Creek project dates back more than a decade to when the ski area was called Durango Mountain Resort and under different ownership. Under the Durango Mountain Resort Improvement Plan, Ice Creek was one of several developments the ski area sought approval for from San Juan National Forest.

However, Ice Creek has been slowed by various assessments, environmental concerns and the purchase of Purgatory Resort by Mountain Capital Partners in 2015.

“It just took so long to get everything done and then seven years after (the improvement plan) was approved the resort changed hands,” Rathbun said.

San Juan National Forest released a draft of its decision in September 2021 outlining the public agency’s initial approval of the project and paving the way for the final decision this month.

However, those who had previously commented on the environmental assessment conducted by the Forest Service for the project had 45 days to object to the decision.

A map of Purgatory Resort’s proposed Ice Creek Project. (Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)

San Juan National Forest received six objections during that period ranging from snowmobile groups and environmental advocates to Purgatory Resort owners Mountain Capital Partners.

Letters from the San Juan Sledders Snowmobile Club and Colorado Snowmobile Association asked the Forest Service to first require the completion of a snowmobile-specific parking lot, which Purgatory first identified in 1998 and was included in the resort’s 2008 improvement plan but has never been completed.

The environmental nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance also submitted a letter questioning the approval of the Ice Creek project on environmental grounds.

The draft decision “includes numerous misleading, unsubstantiated, and/or erroneous statements that we believe indicates the disinterest by the Forest Service to pursue a robust, in-depth and open-minded (National Environmental Policy Act) process to examine this ski resort development scheme,” wrote Jimbo Buickerood, lands and forest protection program manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance.

San Juan Citizens Alliance has long opposed the Ice Creek project noting concerns about Colorado River cutthroat trout and water quality in the East Fork of Hermosa Creek, as well as potential impacts to Canada lynx habitat.

“A lot of it has to do with roads because roads and trails are a major component of where sediment comes from and that’s the big issue for East Fork of Hermosa Creek,” Buickerood said.

San Juan Citizens Alliance’s concerns were echoed in an April 2021 letter submitted to the Forest Service by Colorado Parks and Wildlife during the drafting of the project’s environmental assessment.

“The Ice Creek POD development will create a new burden on the headwater streams,” wrote Durango Area Wildlife Manager Adrian Archuleta. “... The Project Design Criteria will maintain, at best, the current degraded and degrading state on the headwater streams.”

In her decision, Chadwick acknowledged that the Ice Creek project could impact water quality but argued that sufficient safeguards were in place.

“Additional trail development and associated construction and surface disturbance activities could increase erosion and sedimentation, incrementally contributing to downstream channel instability and adverse effects to trout and macroinvertebrates in Hermosa Park; however, as stream health in the project area will be maintained through the use of Project Design Criteria and mitigation measures, I am confident that the Colorado River cutthroat trout populations located downstream of the project area will not be affected by this decision,” Chadwick wrote.

Buickerood said San Juan Citizens Alliance’s concern is that Purgatory Resort has not shown a track record of following through with mitigation and restoration projects.

“Purgatory has shown it’s not a capable or responsible steward of public lands,” he said. “They haven’t been taking care (of the area) in the way that was designated in former agreements that they signed off on and the Forest Service supposedly required. And the Forest Service hasn’t held them to it.”

In its Ice Creek decision, the Forest Service included 15 pages of mitigation and restoration measures Purgatory Resort must complete as a part of various developments, five of which the ski area must finish before it can begin construction on Ice Creek.

Mountain Capital Partners submitted its own objection to the Forest Service’s draft approval of the Ice Creek project, requesting a meeting with the agency and questioning its requirement to complete outstanding management plans and restoration projects by 2025.

“Purgatory feels that completion of a Drainage Management Plan and the required restoration projects by 2025 is an ambitious and in some cases unrealistic requirement,” wrote James Coleman, the Managing Partner and CEO of Mountain Capital Partners. “... Furthermore, it is unclear why several restoration projects associated with previously approved but not yet implemented ski area projects would be required by 2025. It is our understanding that the watershed restoration projects were developed to respond to potential impacts associated with each ski area project; therefore, restoration should not be required until associated ski area projects are implemented.”

Though the Forest Service’s decision March 15 was the final approval Purgatory Resort needed, Rathbun said the ski area does not intend to begin construction on Ice Creek.

“This is not a project that we have as an immediate priority. We have quite a few other priorities we’re working through right now,” he said.

Among those other priorities are expanding parking areas and updating existing infrastructure like the resort’s snowmaking system and electrical network.

“At this point as we move forward, the community at large can understand our real focus is on the skiing,” Rathbun said. “We want to make sure we have the best mountain and the best experience for the guests recreating up on the mountain as possible.”


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