A Day on the Sipapu Slopes: The Good, the Bad, and Here We Go Again

Commentary By KAY MATTHEWS

Twenty-eight years ago Sipapu Ski Area attempted to implement an expansion that would have increased its size five-fold and added a mountain top restaurant and septic system, new lifts, and parking lots. The United States Forest Service (USFS), the agency that permits the resort’s activities, released several Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) that approved the expansion, but due to numerous appeals and other conditions that La Jicarita covered extensively, the ski area never fully implemented the expansion. Over the years Sipapu has implemented several smaller expansions and improvements within its approved boundaries that have increased its size from 187 acres to 215 acres (in 2000 it illegally expanded outside its boundary but after a court battle with the USFS was allowed to proceed with the new chairlift and trails).

Now, the corporate owner, James Coleman, of Mountain Capital Partners, LLC, out of Durango, Colorado, is proposing a similar expansion based on a 2012 Sipapu Master Development Plan that will increase the area to 946 acres with 200 acres of skiable terrain. Three new lifts are planned, and a mountain top restaurant with a composting toilet system, 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.

Sipapu Mountain Manager John Paul Bradley (J.P.) has been tasked with presenting this proposal to various community groups, as I reported in the October 4, 2018 La Jicarita issue. The formal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, whereby the USFS formally assesses the proposal beginning with a public scoping period as part of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), won’t begin until April or May of 2019. But as Bradley has explained, the Sipapu owner apparently wanted to “get ahead of the curve” of the NEPA process by going to various interest groups with the proposal and garnering their input. Bradley has met with Picuris Pueblo, the Santa Barbara Land Grant, the home owners near the ski area, Carson Forest Watch, the Wilderness Alliance, the Embudo Valley Acequia Association, the Embudo/Dixon community, the Peñasco community, and others. The feedback I’ve heard has been largely in opposition to the expansion: Sipapu is a good community resource as it is and would be risking its viability by expanding in this time of drought and climate change.

A petition against the expansion is circulating in the community that will be presented to Bradley, Camino Real District Ranger Sean Ferrell, and Carson National Forest Supervisor James Duran. Here is its content:

“We, the undersigned, oppose the proposed expansion of the Sipapu Ski Area to approximately four times its current size, and the proposed increase by 65 million gallons of the water withdrawn from the Rio Pueblo/Rio Embudo for snow-making from mid-October to mid-December. This will require the purchase of 56 acre-feet of additional water rights. We recognize the significant benefits that Sipapu provides to the local area, through employment, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and initiatives like the local youth ski program. However, the proposed expansion threatens our watershed. The water withdrawals will negatively impact agriculture, domestic wells, water table recharge, fisheries and riparian habitat. There will be an increase in river water contamination by snow-making chemicals and freezing salts. The increased logging will reduce available habitat for plants and animals. Summer and winter resort development will result in increased traffic, water consumption, trash, sewage, and noise from snow-making guns, construction and logging. Such negative impacts are not justified, and especially not in light of projected climate warming and the aridification of New Mexico that call into question the future viability of the ski industry here. By its own report, Sipapu Ski Area only approaches full capacity a few days a year. Thus, the need for an expansion of this magnitude is clearly not justified by customer demand.”

I’ve skied at Sipapu since 1992 when my family moved to El Valle. I taught my two kids to ski there. I volunteered in the school ski program, helping the Peñasco school kids get their gear on for their Monday lessons so I could ski at a reduced rate once they were out on the slopes. I was part of the coalition that fought the ski area’s proposed 1990 expansion (the initial EIS went through several iterations throughout the 1990s) that divided the community in a bitter contestation over water rights and acequias within the rural community versus jobs and loyalty to the Bolander family, the original owners of ski area. The intensity of this bitterness, which I documented in my book Culture Clash: Environmental Politics in New Mexico Forest Communities, kept me away from Sipapu until years after the Bolander family sold the ski area to Coleman and many of the longtime employees left.

There have been problems at the ski area over the years, above and beyond its growing pains and expansion controversies. Yesterday, when I skied Sipapu with my son and granddaughter Lulu, who is five years old, they were on full display. When we arrived a little after nine a.m., the line to buy tickets extended out the door into the cold. Lulu and I went into the restaurant to wait while my son tracked down J.P., who is a friend, to see if there was anything that could be done to expedite the process. We noticed all the folks waiting out in the cold in the rental line as well. He came back to say no, J.P.’s domain is the mountain, not the lodge or ticket sales, and went back to the ticket line. He was soon back, however, with our lift tickets to say that he’d gone inside to the ticket desk only to find out that the folks managing the desk had failed to tell people in line that there should actually be two lines, one for lift tickets and one for ski rentals. As we came out of the restaurant the folks waiting in the cold in the rental line were still there.

But on the mountain, under J.P.’s watch, our experience was a different story. Despite it being two days after Christmas, and a long, anticipated powder day, lift lines were non-existent, and the slopes reasonably crowd free. Most of the mountain was open, and my granddaughter barreled down the groomed trails in her power wedge, as her dad put it, in “the fallen snowboarder slalom.” We tried the powder slope as well, but the power wedge didn’t work so well there. The ski area’s argument that it needs to expand to “provide a positive ski experience for visitors” on the slopes was not borne out yesterday.

Too bad we had to go back inside to eat. When I went up to order a hot chocolate for Lulu, I asked for a second cup so I could cool it down before I let her drink. They charged me fifty cents for an empty paper cup. I asked for a cup of water. They don’t serve water other than bottled water. There was no water available in the room, as there used to be in the ski school days. I complained. My son came in and ordered some French fries under my name and then went out for a quick powder run on his teles. My name still hadn’t been called by the time he came back in. He went up and asked what was going on and they handed him the order. The manager came by and told us we couldn’t bring a bag lunch into the restaurant; we’d been eating it for fifteen minutes (he said there were signs up prohibiting bag lunches). Weeks before when we’d skied there the manager had come by our table and told us we couldn’t take the grandkids’ boots off (they’re five and two years old). So much for Sipapu hospitality. How about having a space for those who bring some food but will also spend some money at your overpriced restaurant as well?

The controversy over the proposed expansion is going to be long and fraught with divisiveness. As I’ve stated many times before, the USFS has never seen a ski area expansion proposal it doesn’t like. 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. Final implementation of the project may take 20 years. In 20 years time Albuquerque could have the climate of Chihuahua and Sipapu could have the climate of Albuquerque. I ended my October article by saying that some of us won’t be around to see what the final outcome will be in 20 years. Lulu will be but she probably won’t be barreling down the groomed slopes of Sipapu.

 

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