Forest Service OKs Vail Resorts to repair damaged tundra at Keystone

The US 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. But the monthlong delay in construction will prevent the resort from opening new terrain in Bergman Bowl by this winter.

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Fitzwilliams rescinded his order of noncompliance and canceled the cease-and-desist order he issued last month after Forest Service officials discovered the construction that had not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.

Vail Resorts hired an outside firm to develop the repair plan.

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

On Thursday afternoon, resort officials said the further environmental review will keep Bergman Bowl from opening for the 2022-23 season, a development Keystone general manager Chris Sorensen said is disappointing but necessary.

“Our priority is preserving and caring for our natural environment,” Sorensen said in a statement. “We take our role as stewards of the environment and of National Forest Service land extremely seriously, and we will operate with that at the heart of the work we execute for the restoration plan and the full Bergman Bowl project.”

Sorensen said the company is grateful for the Forest Service’s partnership and “we greatly respect their expertise.” Keystone will move forward with the planned expansion of the Outpost restaurant for the 2022-23 winter and he said he is optimistic the resort will complete the expansion work next summer and open the new terrain for the 2023-24 season.

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 on July 28. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The Forest Service 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 planned to open 16 new trails on 555 acres for the 2022-23 season .

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

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)

The Forest Service’s approval earlier this year required that construction crews avoid wetlands — like a creek in the bowl — to include 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 that was 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,’” the agency’s report reads.

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.”

UPDATES: This story was updated at 2:40 pm on Aug. 4, 2022, to include comments from Vail Resorts about how the project delay will keep new terrain at Keystone from opening for the 2022-23 ski season.

We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.