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Hunger for uphill ski land has resorts, Forest Service looking at acres unused inside existing ski permits

Bluebird Backcountry, on the hunt for a home for its chairlift-free ski area, is exploring using thousands of ungroomed acres inside ski area boundaries

Skiers climb toward Mosquito Pass on March 2 as part of backcountry ski event organized by Bluebird Backcountry and North London Mill Preservation Inc. Both groups are developing business plans for backcountry recreation. (Justin Wilhelm, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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As demand for uphill travel soars at ski areas across Colorado, business models like Bluebird Backcountry could find traction accessing the thousands of undeveloped acres inside Colorado ski area special-use permits issued by the Forest Service.

It is way too early for resorts to begin talking about possibly allowing backcountry skiers to access trail-free terrain inside permit boundaries. But as Bluebird Backcountry entrepreneurs search for a location to anchor a ski area without chairlifts, the possibility of accessing those tens of thousands of acres adjacent to Colorado ski areas — and set aside for skiing in Forest Service forest plans — is an intriguing option.

MORE: Bluebird Backcountry hopes to tap uphill skiing movement for new resort model

“We use our forest plans to guide what types of uses are appropriate on Forest Service lands and to what degree, which is why I think skiable terrain within the ski area’s special use permit — whether it’s developed or not — those are the first places we look when we want to test these types of activities,” said Don Dressler,  who manages the Forest Service’s mountain resort program for the agency’s resort-rich Rocky Mountain Region. “I think Bluebird is doing a good job of testing that model and building that awareness.”

There is growing demand for recreation on Colorado’s public lands. And that demand is changing. Hundreds of skiers regularly skin up resorts.

Even more regularly ski in the backcountry, venturing through gates on resort boundaries or climbing remote peaks. The Forest Service is watching these changes, Dressler said.

“I think we are definitely staying in tune with what the uses are and where they are. I look at these new types of uses as trying to find balance,” Dressler said. “Any type of proposal for new services, it’s all in the details. Are we going to be doing any glading? Will there be selective tree removal, or grooming or signing or patrol service and avalanche mitigation? These are all types of things we are very interested in hearing and studying before we decide that type of use. I will say the Winter Park model, it’s very interesting.”

The Bluebird Backcountry weekend at Winter Park did not access the roughly 3,100 undeveloped acres inside the ski area’s permit boundary. And the ski area is miles away from saying it has any type of plan to open those acres.

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The Forest Service in the last couple decades has allowed expansion inside permit boundaries only when resorts show there is skier demand for extra terrain. The expansion onto Breckenridge’s Peak 6 and Arapahoe Basin’s new expansion into The Beavers and Steep Gullies terrain are examples of heavily-trafficked resorts securing Forest Service approval to expand inside their permit boundary to accommodate growing numbers of visitors.

Resorts in the increasingly competitive resort industry are perpetually angling for customers by offering new experiences. The City of Aspen and Aspen Skiing Co. are working on a plan to establish the Roaring Fork Valley as a human-powered recreation hub, with uphill skiing, snow-friendly fat biking and other amenities beyond lift-served turns.

Carving out a backcountry ski area inside a resort boundary might be yet another appeal. But don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.

“At this point, I’m not sure there is a real plan beyond just exploring a new relationship with Bluebird Backcountry and seeing if there are any opportunities there,” said Winter Park spokesman Steve Hurlbert. “Yeah, it’s way too early to talk about anything more than that. There are a lot of logistical hurdles specific to safety that would need to be addressed, not to mention working with the Forest Service on an operating plan, which we do with all of our on-mountain projects, in order to allow people in undeveloped areas of our permit boundary.”

MORE: Hunger for uphill ski land has Bluebird, Forest Service looking at unused acres inside existing ski permits

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