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Sunday, September 2, 2012
Updated: September 3, 5:04 AM ET
Breckenridge plan meets resistance

By Jeff Dinunzio

Additional terrain is at the center of a controversy at Breckenridge Ski Resort in Breckenridge, Colo., pitting expansion against overcrowding and environmentalists.

Breckenridge Ski Resort, one of the most popular mountain resorts in the country, was granted approval by the U.S. Forest Service in August to expand its terrain in order to meet growing demand. However, local environmentalists are concerned with its spread into sensitive wildlife habitats, and and some members of the ski community argue adding more terrain won't fix the resort's capacity issues.

Breckenridge experiences one of the highest volumes of traffic in the country. To thin the thick crowds at the resort's 29 lifts, the resort is adding 543 acres to its current 2,358 -- a 23 percent increase in skiable terrain -- in an area known as Peak 6.

Peak 6 has provided skiers and snowboarders reasonably accessible backcountry runs in a region where dense forests limit such terrain. And the relative flatness of Peak 6 has been a go-to for riders looking to escape avalanche threats and persistent winds that can afflict higher elevations.

"It's fairly primitive. You feel like you're far away from the resort even though you've only traveled about a half hour out of the boundary," explained Ellen Hollinshead, a skier and 27-year resident of Breckenridge who is active in local land-use issues and an ardent opponent of the Peak 6 project.

According to Breckenridge Ski Resort senior communications manager Kristen Petitt Stewart, the Peak 6 plan combats the congestion trouble "by providing additional terrain to serve the existing levels of visitation." Peak 6 will feature two new lifts -- the "upper" high-speed 6-person lift and a fixed-grip chair at the lower portion of the mountain -- that will increase what the Forest Service calls Breckenridge's "comfortable carrying capacity" from 14,920 riders to 16,170.

Opponents of the project argue that the challenges of minimizing avalanches on even more ground will only compound the resort's crowding problem. Breckenridge-based ski photographer Liam Doran knows several ski patrollers, and says that Breckenridge's reluctance to pay them overtime to reduce avalanche hazards before the lifts open contributes to clogged lines.

"They're already so strapped for manpower that getting it open on time is going to be very challenging," Doran said. "You're opening more terrain, so what, is it going to open from 11 to 1:30? Who knows, maybe they'll wow everybody. But it's a little hard to believe right now."

Stewart maintains that the resort will handle avalanche mitigation efforts in a timely enough manner to provide access to Peak 6.

"We do intend to increase the size of our snow safety team to accommodate the additional terrain and avalanche control work," she said. But Hollinshead agrees with Doran. "You can't just go out an hire patrollers. It takes a few years to get that kind of training."

"My experience skiing Breckenridge and seeing other expansions, on paper it makes sense, but it doesn't help at all," Hollinshead said. "They tend to market these heavily, like the Imperial Express [which opened in 2005 as the highest chairlift in North America]. It doesn't seem like [the expansions] are worth what we're sacrificing."

But Stewart contends that, "This project is not intended or designed to increase visitation above [projected levels]."

Doran, on the other hand, is equally optimistic about the possibility of drawing new lines around Peak 6 where the threat of sliding snow previously kept people away; and he's confident other locals hold the same view.

"Now that it is going to be controlled, we can ski stuff we've never been able to ski before," Doran said.

According to Stewart, the Peak 6 proposal "includes backcountry access points for guests looking to leave the developed ski area." But she noted that skiers opting to depart resort boundaries would enter areas not subject to avalanche mitigation efforts.