It’s not always easy being a politician in a small town.
I’ve been there and pissed off some close friends, so I understand. But everyone who wanted to be elected to a decision-making body needs to remember: it’s not alwaays balloons and pats on the back—you asked for it.
Watching the Crested Butte council, or at least five of them, grapple with the Irwin Backcountry Guide (IBG) proposal for snowcat skiing near Irwin was a little uncomfortable Monday night. Three of their buddies (two council members and the town attorney) had to leave the room because of a potential conflict of interest. They work for IBG. This left their friends at the table talking about their jobs. It was obviously a little stilted. Understandable. The council discussion started with “It’s not in our jurisdiction,” which is a phrase rarely, if ever, heard in the Crested Butte council chambers.
Just 30 minutes prior to that comment, the entire council was debating the merits of Teocalli Ridge and other trails in the Forest Service Travel Management plan. Places in that plan like Teo Ridge and Carbon are much farther from town than Lake Irwin—which is certainly in town jurisdiction, given past history.
Now, on top of that awkwardness, the council got to meet the residents of Irwin. Unapologetically, Biro and the clan can be a bit of a grizzled bunch and a tad unnerving. They can be charmingly smooth as sandpaper, loud, a bit less urbanized, polished and polite than the typical Crested Butte crowd. This is not the Wildflower Festival. But even while arguing amongst themselves, they made several valid points and the Crested Butte council eventually gave them a bit of what they wanted: a board who listened to them and did some of what they asked. Nice.
No one seems to mind the idea of mechanized-assisted skiing at Irwin. Crested Butte is supposed to be a ski town after all. It probably could be good for business and it’s not like most of the skiers up there now don’t use machines to help them find the powder. Crested Butte would be the base camp of operations. It is more tourism in the valley. As the operation grows, the town would see more direct positive impact to the economy.
But when, for example, it was admitted Monday night that part of the plan was to chop down trees by the shore of Lake Irwin, it became evident that perhaps there was indeed more to the proposal than generally thought. It is valid to slow down and take a step back, as councilman Reed Betz suggested. Scaling back the plan at the start is not unreasonable. It’s not like the Forest Service is on the fast train to China with the other ski area expansion proposed in the valley.
But part of the weirdness Monday night was not what was talked about, but what wasn’t. The town representatives were off their typical talking points. While a very general nod was given to the town watershed ordinance, there were no questions from the council about possible pollution from snowcats into the lake and general watershed. No questions from the council about trees being cut on the shores of Lake Irwin, which could impact a pristine and classic Crested Butte postcard view and the water the town owns in the lake. Will the fact that IBG will be using explosives to stabilize the snowpack up there attract a ton more snowmobilers up Kebler Pass Road since there will be safer powder fields up there? Maybe. But no one on the council asked about it. While the Forest Service said summer access to Scarp’s Ridge would remain open to the public, the council didn’t ask if hikers could continue to park at the old Irwin Lodge parking area. No questions about mundane things like traffic impact at the Kebler trailhead or at First and Whiterock, enquiries about potential for future expansion, impact on wildlife, no question about the need for such an operation in times of declining skier numbers or its carbon footprint addition to the valley. No citizen concern about a private company using public land for profit. No question about trees being cut near roadless areas. That’s all fine and there are probably some easy answers but it just seemed so uncomfortably vacuous.
The fact that two high-profile public officials in Alan Bernholtz and Billy Rankin are part of the plan is another reason to take some more time. Obviously those two are very qualified to run a backcountry ski operation. They sure could have been a little more out in front in getting the details of the proposal out to everyone. But like it or not—fair or not—the fact that Alan and Billy are politically connected means they need to be held to a higher standard. It doesn’t mean anything needs to be slowed down or derailed but it is not unreasonable—in fact it should be necessary—for the Crested Butte council, Gunnison County and the Forest Service to carefully and transparently apply the same standards they have applied to others, if not more. It’s just part of the deal. The council moved a tad, albeit uncomfortably, in that direction Monday night by asking the Forest Service to extend the comment period.
Commercial skiing up at Irwin is probably a pretty good idea. It’s hard to argue against skiing in an area that touts itself as a destination ski resort. It expands the tourism base and offers more opportunity for those that visit. The Irwin clients will probably stay in town. By the way, IBG mountain manager Alan Bernholtz told me Tuesday morning that fewer than a dozen trees would have to be removed by the lake’s shoreline.
The council should put on its big boy panties and stay somewhat consistent with how they treat a new proposal in the area…especially when you are friends with the managers. And, by the way…in this circumstance, Irwin is certainly in your jurisdiction.
It’s not in your jurisdiction?
It’s not always easy being a politician in a small town.