Commentary by KAY MATTHEWS
I was wrong in January 2013 when I said the Camino Real would duck any appeals by maintaining the status quo in its Travel Management Plan Environmental Assessment—sort of. A coalition of environmentalists, including WildEarth Guardians, The Center for Biological Diversity, NM Sportsmen, Back Country Horsemen of New Mexico, and Carol Johnson filed an appeal on December 12 and then withdrew it on December 23. There’s speculation that the groups filed the appeal anticipating that the Off Road Vehicle lobby would also appeal the plan, as it did in the Santa Fe National Forest, and the environmentalists wanted to make sure they would be included in any negotiations regarding revisions to the plan. But the ORV crowd missed the appeals deadline, so the coalition withdrew its appeal.
Under the plan the district proposes to prohibit cross-country (off road) travel, which has been the rule on several other districts for years and is now required by the Travel Management Rule of 2005 that provides a framework that each national forest and grassland uses to designate a system of roads, trails, and areas for motor vehicle use on the entire forest. Otherwise, the EA proposes to restrict a few miles of roads to administrative use; remove a few existing 300-foot corridors (areas alongside roads where people can camp and gather firewood); impose a district-wide seasonal closure in the winter and early spring); and convert one road to a motorized trail.
There really wasn’t much to appeal, from an environmental point of view: a couple of miles of “user-created routes” that the USFS decided to designate as part of the road system was really the only concern. In fact, in the appeal WildEarth Guardians wrote: “We wish to acknowledge the Forest Service’s considerable efforts to develop a TMP [Travel Management Plan] for the Carson National Forest that balances the diverse interests of the public with environmental concerns. Moreover, Appellants support many aspects of the TMP decision. Given the complexity of the issues and time and resources committed to these documents and this process, we believe that its overall quality should be highlighted.”
But there was something very interesting in the environmentalists’ appeal. The appellants objected to the inclusion of these user-created routes not only because of their concerns about protecting the environment but because, as they state in the appeal, “The forest’s seeming bias towards the economic interests of Sipapu Ski Area and Summer Resort over clean water, wildlife habitat, and quiet recreation opportunities is not justified.”
As I reported in my January article, the Camino Real EA initially included an alternative that considered converting many of the motorized trails on the south side of State Highway 518, the location of the ski area that is adjacent to a roadless area and the Pecos Wilderness, to non-motorized use while replacing “the same number of miles of motorized trails in another location.”
But during the scoping period Sipapu objected that any trail closures would have negative economic impacts and the USFS backed down: as stated in the EA, the “forest supervisor has chosen not to change the motorized trail system on the Camino Real RD during this NEPA process.” The motorized trails on the south side of 518 are heavily promoted and used by the resort for summertime use. In its response to Sipapu’s objections, the EA states: “Sipapu Ski Area and Summer Resort generates a significant amount of summer business by promoting motorized recreation on the nearby Carson NF. The resort provides maps and information about local roads and trails. Proposing to designate motor vehicle use on roads, trails, and within corridors for specific purposes may substantially restrict where visitors can go on the forest and result in a less enjoyable recreational experience. A diminished experience may affect whether a visitor returns to the resort in the future.”
Wildearth Guardians’ reference to a possible “bias” of the Camino Real District towards Sipapu is only the most recent questionable decision made by the district regarding the economic viability of the resort. In 1995 the USFS issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that approved a large ski area expansion at Sipapu: an expansion of the ski area boundary from 185 acres to 977 acres (with 220 skiable acres); two new parking areas; two new lifts; and an additional 2,700 square foot restaurant/ski patrol building, including a well and septic system. The FEIS was appealed by local citizen groups that questioned Forest Service analysis of the expansion’s impact on water quality, quantity, and traditional cultural properties—and the ski area’s economic needs used to justify the expansion on public land. The Forest Service also neglected to look into the fact that the ski area didn’t actually have the water rights, cited in the FEIS, it wanted to transfer to commercial use for snow making, claiming that was the purview of the Office of the State Engineer. The OSE indeed found that the resort had forfeited its water rights, and the Forest Service withdrew the FEIS because it had failed to consult with Picuris Pueblo regarding traditional cultural properties that might be affected by the expansion.
While the ski area failed to achieve this initial expansion, it continued its development march in more incremental phases. On July 3, 2000, Bruce Bolander, then owner of the ski area (Sipapu was subsequently sold to out of state investors), wrote a half-page letter to Camino Real District Ranger Cecilia Seesholtz briefly outlining work the ski area proposed to undertake within its permitted boundaries as part of a plan to expand its facilities. This letter contained no site specific work plan, no work schedule, and most importantly, no mention of environmental assessments. On July 12 Seesholtz wrote a three sentence response to this letter concluding, “We have received your summer operation plan and have found it within the parameters of your special use permit.”
As a result, several areas were clearcut, others selectively cut, and at least 125 cords of wood and saw timber were removed. The tree removal increased the area’s skiable terrain from 34 acres to approximately 65 acres. The ski area also purchased a new chair lift and other equipment necessary to implement this expansion. Ironically, on the very day Seesholtz signed off on the summer work plan she met with more than 20 community members and representatives from the Rio Pueblo/Rio Embudo Watershed Protection Coalition, the New Mexico Acequia Association, and the Santa Fe Group of the Sierra Club to hear their concerns about the ski area’s expansion plans. During that meeting she was asked to inform the group of any proposed actions on Forest Service land associated with Sipapu. She failed to make any mention of the “Summer Work Plan.”
It was not until November of 2000, as a result of ski area advertisements in The Taos News and on the radio, that everyone became aware of the expansion work. Folks immediately contacted Seesholtz to ask how this work could have been permitted without necessary assessments and public input. She responded that assessments had been done years ago, which gave her the authority to permit the work. The coalition members asked to see those assessments. Seesholtz said she would find them. Two days later she called and claimed she had been misled by members of her staff: there were no assessments in place, and she had ordered the ski area to stop all work and seal off the affected area.
The ski area sued the Forest Service for injunctive relief. On September 4, 2001, Federal Judge Bruce Black granted a hearing on Sipapu’s claim that it would suffer irreparable financial harm if it was not allowed to proceed with the project. On September 11, Judge Black issued a preliminary injunction granting the ski area the right to proceed with the project as outlined in the summer work letter and ordering it to post a $100,000 bond against possible environmental degradation. He also directed ski area owners to work with the Forest Service to plan and undertake environmental assessments.
To comply with the judge’s order concerning environmental assessments, the Forest Service sent out a scoping letter in the fall. It was at this point coalition members learned that the ski area had trespassed on approximately 30 acres outside its permitted boundaries. The Forest Service continually refused to acknowledge this trespass and said only that it sought to “modify the previous boundary by approximately 30 acres to incorporate the new improvements.” The agency, however, clearly did not have the authority to do this because the July 3, 2000 letter regarding the “summer work plan”, which was the subject of the injunction, states: “All work to be done is within our current permit area.” In addition, the trespass impacted an area protected by the Roadless Initiative.
More than 50 community members and environmental groups commented on the scoping letter, expressing concerns that ranged from the document’s numerous procedural violations and self-contradictory statements to impacts on cultural and historical properties, water quality and quantity, fish and wildlife habitat, community infrastructure, and induced development. Once again the Forest Service ignored or glossed over these concerns when it issued its Environmental Assessment in December and then again when it issued its Finding of No Significant Impact in August of the following year.
The ski resort finally got a new lift that accessed higher elevation tree skiing and just this year replaced the beginner lift with a conveyor lift. And although the Bolanders were able to transfer water from their downstream property to the ski area to make snow, a subsequent attempt to transfer San Juan/Chama water fizzled. Sipapu isn’t alone in its dependence upon the Forest Service to write blank checks for development. Several decades ago the Santa Fe Ski Basin implemented an expansion that raised enormous opposition from the public. Taos Ski Valley recently got the go ahead from Carson National Forest to implement its expansion: an increase of its expert terrain by 60 percent with two new lifts accessing high-alpine areas currently accessible only to hikers; upgrades to three other lifts; thinning of trees to expand two new glade areas for advanced intermediate to expert skiers; construction of a permanent tubing facility; a snowshoe trail system; and a lift-served mountain bike trail for summer visitors. In an interesting twist, it was just bought by a billionaire investor who has the money to actually implement these expansions. Ski Apache has implemented a $15 million expansion with three new chairlifts (including a high speed gondola).
The question seems to be: As ski areas continue to expand to compete for a shrinking skier population, buy up water rights to compensate for a dearth of natural snow, and raise ticket prices to pay for all of it—risky measures that may or may not maintain their viability—will the USFS continue to be their enabler?