Pigs, zip lines and Irwin. Resort area expansion thoughts…

The funniest moment at the meeting between Irwin Backcountry Guides and the county Planning Commission concerned the potential noise from proposed zip lines. The proponents admitted zip lines made some noise but not much. Commission chairman Ramon Reed pointed out that it wasn’t so much noise from the lines that was a concern but noise from participants. “I see that commercial with the pig riding the zip line probably twice a night on TV,” he said. “That irritating pig and his screaming Wheeeee is the noise that concerns me.”

The most poignant moment of the meeting might have been the very end, when IBG resort general manager (and former Crested Butte mayor) Alan Bernholtz seemed to flash back and almost channel CBMR ski resort executives from 2009 when they argued to expand their resort activities.

Who can these arguments be attributed to?
“We are trying to help keep the economy going.”
“We are hiring local people.”
“We are expanding where there is already development.”
“It’s not pristine. There’s already a lot of use up there.”
“What we’re proposing is not groundbreaking.”
“We’re proposing things that already take place up there.”
“We need to do whatever we can to bring tourism and people into the north end of the valley… tourism is a sustainable industry.”

I understand the details of the two expansion proposals are very different. But the philosophy isn’t. I just found the scene interesting. A resort executive facing some pushback from the public and government officials and making a very similar case to one he didn’t exactly embrace as mayor. Switching sides of the table makes life a little less black-and-white, a little more interesting.
Now, to be fair, you could make the same case with me. In my first years here my initial reaction to expansion proposals of any sort in this valley was negative. I have softened in that regard. I still believe in a comprehensive review for any major growth proposals, but am more apt to be open to “smart growth.”
Changing one’s mind and being open to new ideas and different ways of thinking or a revised perception is not necessarily a bad thing. For a lot of people, perception shifts with little things like kids and mortgages, friends leaving because of no work, and time spent in the valley. Fair enough.
While Bernholtz and IBG are certainly more community-savvy and charming than CBMR execs were during their expansion process in 2009, the basic pitch sounds like an echo chamber. The presence of IBG’s activities, current and proposed, are changing the basin 12 miles west of Crested Butte and the Planning Commission should do a thorough review.

So that brings us to the crux of the specific IBG situation. The county has apparently chosen to make the Irwin area an industrial tourism zone. More tours, trails, zip lines, snowcats, boat rentals, playgrounds and clubhouses all fill that bill.
While I would not argue vehemently with IBG representatives that the area is pristine, it definitely holds an aura of wilderness. Lake Irwin is a Jellystone postcard and it attracts a lot of people looking for easy access to that vibe. That patina of wilderness is a draw in our summer. If the county and public believe Irwin can be an appropriate place for more industrial tourism attractions while retaining the vibe, then taking a year or two under the “major impact” classification to review the proposal is too long.
Here’s a thought. Maybe both sides should consider reducing the scale of the current proposal and deal with a chewable bite of the plan. There is no doubt this expansion would have some very visible impacts on the area but it is not the same as a major subdivision in the county. Having said that, the residents and property owners up there should have a loud voice in the process as more and more is added to their neighborhood.

Once the big picture quandary is settled and planners are comfortable that Irwin is suitable for this type of tourist attraction, I would suggest that a solution might be to perhaps phase in the current IBG proposal so the most important element of the proposal can be up and running in an appropriate timeline. Maybe it’s a trail or a zip. Maybe it’s the playground. Call it Irwin Lite.
Take out the boathouse and new trails in this round. And then as part of the approval for just the zip lines, require IBG to submit a five-year master plan within the next 12 months. Tighten up concerns like the wastewater issue and get a real feel for the numbers the amenities will draw.
These piecemeal requests for expansion from IBG aren’t really fair to the Planning Commission, the neighbors or the general public. Ramon and his fellow commissioners aren’t wrong when they say the cumulative impacts are turning this operation into a major deal with major impacts.

It is up to our government officials to make sure expansions and developments don’t screw up the special places in our backyard. Expanding recreation opportunities in a recreation “zone” seems reasonable… if done with mindfulness.
Let’s get a master plan on the table and see just how much impact (good and bad) Irwin wants to have in the long run. Let’s seriously consider a recreational improvement that could help sometime this summer. I think both the former mayor and the current resort executive could agree with that.


—Mark Reaman

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