By KAY MATTHEWS
John Paul Bradley, Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort mountain manager, is the front man for the 2012 Sipapu Master Development Plan, newly amended, and now being presented to the public in a series of community meetings from Mora to the Dixon/Embudo area.
I was invited to attend a meeting in late August along with Joanie Berde of Carson Forest Watch and Mark Allison of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance (Allison was invited because the expansion extends into a designated Inventoried Roadless Area). Also in attendance was Adam LaDell, Carson National Forest Winter Sports Coordinator, a new position on the forest. When Bradley showed us a map of the Master Development Plan I was taken by surprise: it is a virtual replica of the expansion plan that was proposed by the Bolander family, founder and owner of the resort until 2001, that was released in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) by the United States Forest Service (USFS) in 1990. That EIS called for an expansion of the ski area boundary from 187 acres to 977 acres (with 220 skiable acres), two new parking areas, two new lifts, and an additional 2,700 restaurant/ski patrol building, including a well and septic system, at the top of the mountain. The EIS was appealed by community groups and eventually withdrawn in 1995 because it had failed to consult with Picuris Pueblo regarding traditional cultural properties that might be affected by the expansion and over issues of ownership of water rights (explained later in this article). An amended EIS was rereleased but the full expansion was never implemented.
The amended 2012 Sipapu Master Development Plan that Bradley is presenting to the community has several changes from the 1990 plan. Over the years Sipapu has incrementally increased its boundary to 215 acres; the proposed increase will be 946 acres with 200 acres of skiable terrain. Three new lifts instead of two are planned. The plan considers composting toilets for the mountain top restaurant, negating the need for a septic system. The lift from the base to the restaurant could include a chair/gondola system to facilitate building needs and summer recreation. There is an extensive summer recreation plan in the proposal that includes an additional disc golf course, mountain bike trails, a zip line, and summer tubing.
I also attended a community meeting at the Embudo Valley Library on September 29. These meetings, as Bradley explained to the group, are informal and not part of the scoping process that is required under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which requires formal meetings that will be documented and included in the EIS. As someone who lives in the community, but who works at Sipapu with “his ski goggles on,” Bradley said he wants to get input from his neighbors about how this proposed expansion might affect them personally, their business, or their community.
He got an earful from the folks who attended the Dixon/Embudo community. As he tried to work through a power point presentation on the Master Development Plan he was peppered with questions from the diverse group there: farmers and parciantes from the local community; the president of the Santa Barbara Land Grant; and home owners in the Sipapu area.
Bradley initially presented an overview of why the ski area wants to expand. James Coleman, of Mountain Capital Partners, LLC, out of Durango, Colorado, bought Sipapu in 2001 from the Bolander family. Originally from Texas, he owns a number of other ski areas in the Southwest, including Purgatory, outside of Durango. According to Bradley, when he—Bradley—first arrived at Sipapu, 17 years ago, there were 14,000 ski visits a year; three years ago there were 51,000 visits. The carrying capacity of the ski area is currently 1,080 skiers; after the expansion it will be 3,600. He feels these numbers show that the area needs more room to provide a positive ski experience for visitors. He also stressed that he would be able to keep prices down so that people could afford to ski there: the current ticket price at Sipapu is $47; the price at Taos Ski Valley is $110.
Bonafacio Vasquez, president of the Santa Barbara Land Grant, interrupted Bradley to question him about the illegal expansion of the ski area outside its boundaries in the early 2000s, when the USFS had been negligent in allowing tree removal for new ski trails without the necessary environmental assessments in place. When the agency realized its mistake and ordered the ski area to stop all work, Sipapu sued the Forest Service for injunctive relief, citing that it had already purchased a new chair lift and other equipment necessary for the expansion. The judge allowed the ski area to proceed with the expansion. Adam LaDell was also at this meeting and assured Vasquez that the USFS would follow all NEPA procedures in this proposal.
Someone asked if the Forest Service would conduct the EIS. LaDell responded that Forest Service Region Two, which is the Rocky Mountain Region, and SE Group, or Snow Engineers, out of Frisco, Colorado, will be responsible for the EIS.
Throughout the two hour discussion most of the people there periodically questioned Bradley as to why the ski area wants to expand when it “already has a good thing going:” the ski area hasn’t reached full capacity; how can it possibly keep the ticket price of $47 with an expansion; and why now, in this time of severe water shortage when no one knows what each year will bring in terms of water supply and demand.
Bradley stressed the importance of Sipapu’s contribution to the area’s economy and the potential for growth. The yearly payroll is between $920,000 and $1,000,000. This will obviously increase with the expansion and contribute to local businesses. Joe Ciddio of Cañoncito pointed out that while it may contribute to some local businesses he believes it’s mainly detrimental to Dixon, increasing the traffic and perhaps contributing to the algae bloom he’s been seeing in the winter. He asked about the planned increase in hotel accommodations. Bradley said there are plans for a 36 unit building that would bring capacity to 500 people per night.
Harvey Frauenglass, a farmer in the Dixon/Embudo area and one of the members of the Rio Pueblo/Rio Embudo Watershed Protection Coalition that appealed the 1990 EIS, asked the question that had been simmering below the surface of the meeting the entire time: “How much more water do you need and where will you get it?”
The ski area will have to find water rights to make snow for its expanded trail system. When Bradley said a total of 218 acre feet of water (afy) will be needed for the expansion there was an audible gasp in the room, but that figure is diverted water, not consumptive water, and with the State Engineer’s assigned return flow credit of 72 percent, which is a highly debatable figure, the consumptive use is 56 afy. Sipapu already has 18 plus afy of water rights, transferred from Lloyd and Olive Bolander’s property downstream after it was determined that the ski area itself had forfeited its water rights when the highway department filled in its acequia back in the 1960s during highway realignment.
This elicited unhappy comments from several folks who have homes near the base of the ski area about the increase in the infrastructure necessary to be making that much snow and how the noise will impact their lives.
Bradley believes that ski areas can act as snow banks in the winter and then release the snow as spring run-off for downstream users. Ciddio and Frauenglass don’t agree with that assessment. Frauenglass described the dire situation farmers were in this year, one of the worst on record, and spoke about the need for the replenishment of springs from the water table to keep the farmers at the bottom of the watershed alive. “You’re going to be impacting the water table.” Ciddio believed Bradley wasn’t factoring in the evaporation from the slopes. And the question remained, where is Sipapu going to find 56 afy of water to buy or lease?
Bradley also went through a detailed accounting of figures he had compiled for a meeting with the Embudo Valley Acequia Association to show that the current water use and projected use of gallons or cfs’s (cubic feet per second) from the Rio Pueblo, the source of water that Sipapu uses to make snow, are really quite low, using the State Engineer’s 72 percent return flow credit (single digit percentage points: I didn’t get the exact figures). Vasquez said, “Using that return flow credit is an assumption on your part,” and Bradley agreed. You can contact Bradley for these figures or come to the next meeting, which will be held on October 6, 4:00 to 6:00 pm at the Peñasco Community Center.
At the end of the meeting, Frauenglass summed up a lot of the feeling in the room: “What you’re doing you’re not doing alone. From past experience, the Forest Service doesn’t take this into account.” By holding all of these community meetings, Bradley hopes to get ahead of the curve and find out how people feel about this proposed expansion before the formal NEPA process begins. Will that have any impact on what this proposal will look like before the master plan is submitted to the USFS? That remains to be seen. Some of us won’t be around to know what the final outcome is anyway: final implementation of the project may take 20 years.