Forest Service urged to extend comment period on Irwin ski plan

Lynx issues, removing trees by the lake?

At the request of several Irwin townsite residents, the Crested Butte Town Council will send a letter to the U.S. Forest Service asking the agency to extend the comment period on a proposed snowcat ski operation in the Irwin area. The council was pared down to five members since Crested Butte mayor Alan Bernholtz, councilman Billy Rankin and town attorney John Belkin all stepped out of the room and excused themselves from the discussion because they work for Irwin Backcountry Guides (IBG), the outfit making the snowcat ski proposal.



Mayor pro-tem Leah Williams said the town had received many comments on the proposal and all would be included on the record. Former project manager Missy Ochs represented IBG since the current mountain manager is Bernholtz. At the start of the discussion, Williams asked her fellow councilmembers if it was even appropriate for the council to comment on the issue. Town manager Susan Parker said the town’s watershed ordinance could be triggered depending on the scope of work done with the operation.
“The project is not in our jurisdiction,” Williams said. “The county’s Land Use Resolution is probably more appropriate and could be triggered with a project of this scope. We wrote a letter of support for the project last September. The question is, should we make further comment?”
Councilman Dan Escalante felt a letter from the town to the Forest Service with proper concerns could be appropriate. “They should be aware of concerns for our watershed,” he said. “And we may have concerns over competition with local businesses already operating in terms of summer guiding activities such as Crested Butte Mountain Guides.”
Councilperson Skip Berkshire said he felt like the council was acting like a middleman. “Is it up to us to collect information and pass it along to someone else?” he asked. “I feel the comments should be channeled to the Forest Service. We don’t have a yea or nay vote on it. I almost hate to start wading into those waters.”
“I agree with Skip and Dan,” said Williams. “It’s not in our jurisdiction. The Forest Service has a process in place.”
Councilwoman Kimberly Metsch echoed that sentiment. “It is outside our jurisdiction,” she reiterated.
Nevertheless, after that council discussion, Williams opened up the meeting to public discussion. Lawton Grinter of the High Country Citizens Alliance expressed concern about IBG cutting down trees in four main areas to accommodate snowcat access. One of those areas is a roadless area.
Ochs admitted that some trees would be removed under the plan, including some trees toward Independence Basin that would provide for an emergency evacuation route.
Gunnison Ranger District snow ranger Kai Allen said there are a lot of rules governing tree removal, but none of the areas in question were very large.
Longtime Irwin resident John Biro asked if some trees were slated to be removed around the Lake Irwin shoreline.
“Yes,” admitted Ochs.
Biro said many Irwin residents would like to see revisions to the proposed plan. He said the scale was too large. They would like to see Independence Basin activity excluded. They don’t want the permit area to extend to the town site boundary. They don’t want to see any road or tree removal by the shoreline of Lake Irwin.
“We are not anti-IBG but we are asking for some major revisions and an extended public comment period time,” Biro said. “The summer residents aren’t even here yet.”
Jack Barker of Irwin asked the council to take a stand and represent the Irwinites. “Everything we do is in this town,” he said. “We shop here. We have our post office box here. Someone needs to speak for us and there hasn’t been much communication with us from the proponents. We have concerns about access and the Avalauncher. It just seems that the cart is before the horse at the moment. If you can make a recommendation for the project last September you can consider asking the Forest Service to slow down and extend the comment period.”
On Wednesday, IBG Mountain Manager Alan Bernholtz said the entire proposal was sent last September to every adjecent landowner and the president of the Irwin Poperty Owner’s Association. He said IBG has received comments based on that September mailing.
J.W. Smith of Irwin said he was in favor of the snowcat ski plan but wanted to make sure he was notified about any public discussion that might affect Irwinites, whether they are about skiing or water issues.
A letter from the Colorado Department of Wildlife’s Gunnison wildlife manager J Wenum had concerns about the operation on known lynx habitat in the area. He recommended minimizing snowcat routes and trips, ending the ski season before April 1, allowing tours only on Forest Service trails and following proper protocol to avoid conflicts with black bears and other wildlife.
Irwin property owner Corey Bryndal didn’t buy the council’s argument that they shouldn’t comment because it was out of their jurisdiction. “My septic system was held up two years by the town,” he said. “We all accept that. This is a very large project. It is the size of CBMR and Monarch combined. We work with you on a lot of things and this is appropriate. We all just want a well thought-out operation up there.”
Bryndal said the Forest Service’s statement that the permit is just a renewal of a previous use was flawed.
“That permit was issued in 1985,” Bryndal said. “A lot of things have changed since then. There are a whole host of environmental concerns…I’m not against the project, I just think it needs to be slimmed down. They should stay away from the lake, for example.”
Bryndal also took issue with the process. He said that during the September discussion on whether or not the town should send a letter of support, Bernholtz and Rankin remained in the room during council discussion and could have easily had an influence on the council. He said that was totally inappropriate.
J.W. Smith said he thought it reasonable to have room in the permit for the business to expand if needed.
Kai Allen explained that the Forest Service looked at the 2,300 skier days as a maximum capacity. He also explained that the agency was now issuing 10-year permits to outfitters, with the first two years coming under a temporary use. He said the Forest Service was looking at helicopter pads but only as emergency evacuation spots, not for helicopter skiing.
The council again took up the discussion and Reed Betz said he accepted the town in the role of middleman. “It’s kind of like when we had the Snodgrass discussion at the Center for the Arts,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with us taking a step back and asking for more information. It’s like a lot of stuff that comes before us.”
Betz even suggested holding another public forum when more summer homeowners would be present. “It’s working together as a community like we do with everything around here,” he said.
Metsch said it might be better for IBG to hold that type of meeting. “The reason we had the Snodgrass meeting was because it was within our three-mile area,” she said. “It is clear that IBG needs to be more transparent.”
Berkshire responded to Betz, saying the meeting had just been held. “To duplicate this again just delays the process,” he said.” I too can see amending our letter to express our watershed concerns and ask the Forest Service to give sufficient time to the Irwin residents just coming into town.”
The council agreed to direct the staff to write a new letter to the Forest Service asking the agency to extend the comment period until July 1. The comment period is currrently scheduled to end on MAy 30. The council also wanted the watershed concerns mentioned and their concerns over local business competition. They also asked Ochs to encourage IBG to be more “pro-active” in reaching out to those affected by the plan.
According to Gunnison Ranger District recreation manager Bill Jackson, the comment period cannot be extended per agency regulations. However, he said, an additional comment period can be designated before a decision is made. “This is a scoping period and we are trying to find out what the issues are.”

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