Friday, November 9, 2007

Reinventing a mountain

Gondola, terrain park, new trails approved for Baldy

Express Staff Writer

A bevy of improvements to Bald Mountain ski facilities are a small step away from final approval by the federal government. Photo by Chris Pilaro

The nation's first destination ski resort is about to get a facelift.

Barring successful appeals, that facelift for Sun Valley's famous ski hill, 9,510-foot Bald Mountain, will include a new gondola from the River Run base area to a remodeled Roundhouse restaurant, a terrain park in Frenchman's Gulch, 99 acres of additional snowmaking, a new beginner ski run in the Seattle Ridge area and more tree skiing on the Warm Springs side of the hill.

What that doesn't mean is a new controversial ski run on Guyer Ridge connecting the International trail to the Warm Springs base of the mountain. Rather than allowing clear cutting, grading and snowmaking on the ridge, 40 percent of the trees there will be thinned to open the stands for in-bounds glade skiing and snowboarding.

The on-mountain improvements were outlined in a Monday, Nov. 5, decision by the U.S. Forest Service. The decision approves the first of three phases of an update to the Bald Mountain Master Development Plan, the document that dictates what facilities can be put in place on the publicly owned ski mountain west of Ketchum. The approval of Phase 1 this week could enable Sun Valley Co. to begin implementing on-mountain improvements as early as this winter.

Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Jane Kollmeyer on Monday signed the record of decision, which capped a process that began two years ago when Sun Valley Co. unveiled a proposal to update the existing Bald Mountain plan. The resort also requested a 40-year extension to its ski area operating permit, which expires in December.

"I believe my decision provides the best balance between the various social, resource and business needs on Bald Mountain," Kollmeyer said. "My rationale for this decision is based on our desire to provide a greater range of recreational experiences within the ski area as users' expectations change, improve forest health and provide for long-term economic stability in the Wood River Valley."

The decision involves 2,045 acres of National Forest lands contained within the 3,332 acres proposed for the ski area permit. The remaining 1,287 acres of federal lands are administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM's protest and appeals policy requires it to release its record of decision no sooner than 30 days after the release of a final environmental impact statement, which means it will announce its record of decision in mid-December. For each agency, signing of the decision kicks off 45-day appeal periods, meaning the Forest Service will wrap up its process in mid-December, and the BLM will conclude in early 2008.

The process of issuing and renewing development plans and permits for ski areas on public lands is no small task, but it is common throughout the United States.

"National forests have the terrain but don't have the capability to develop ski areas without a private partner," said Sawtooth National Forest Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson.

There are close to 150 ski areas nationwide operating on public lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service, Nelson said.

Sun Valley Co.'s master development plan contains three phases to be implemented over the next decade. Only Phase 1, which outlines on-mountain improvements over the next three to five years, was submitted to the federal agencies for approval. The last update of the plan occurred in 1989, and most of the proposed improvements from that have been implemented.

"That was a fairly significant expansion in terms of going from fixed-grip to quad lifts, and development of the Seattle Ridge Lodge, River Run Lodge and Warm Springs Lodge and installation of a large majority of the snowmaking," Nelson said.

If all changes in all three phases of the master development plan are eventually approved, the mountain could receive up to $20 million in improvements; Sun Valley Co. is not obligated to implement all of the proposals. Projects slated for Phase 2 and Phase 3 include renovating the Lookout summit restaurant, installing beginner skiing and lifts near the top of Seattle Ridge, and replacing the Cold Springs and Mayday fixed-grip lifts with detachable quad chair lifts, among other things.

"It's tweaking or fine tuning an already great product for skiing," Nelson said. "Are there some things that could be done differently (in Phase 1)? Everybody has their opinions: more tree skiing, more snowmaking, less snowmaking. But the big controversy was Guyer Ridge, and we looked at it from the standpoint of noise, snowmaking and grading the ridge, and those impacts outweighed the gain in terms of the public's opinion."

Also, an approximately 5.2-acre terrain park has been approved as part of Phase 1, and will be installed in the gully to the skier's right of Janss Pass in Frenchman's Gulch. The site was chose over a roughly 5-acre area on the lower portion of Greyhawk.

The terrain park will include installation of snowmaking, and construction could begin as early as the summer of 2008.

While Guyer Ridge was among the most contentious facets of Phase 1, "The terrain park has been the most commented-on issue," said Joe Miczulski, master plan project leader for the Forest Service.

The proposal to add two gondolas to Bald Mountain—in Phase 1 (the now-approved River Run gondola) and Phase 3 (on the Warm Springs side, which will be examined at a later date)—was somewhat controversial.

Copies of the Sun Valley Resort (Bald Mountain) 2005 Master Plan—Phase 1 Projects Final Environmental Impact Statement and both the Forest Service and BLM records of decision are available in a number of formats, including at the Sawtooth National Forest Web site at

Hard copies or copies of a CD-ROM can be obtained by contacting Sawtooth National Forest offices in Twin Falls at (208) 737-3200 or at the Ketchum Ranger Station at (208) 737-3200.

"We look forward to working with Sun Valley Co. as they implement these projects to assure the soil, water and vegetative resources on Bald Mountain are protected as required by project design criteria and best management practices in this decision," Kollemeyer said.

Phase 1 projects

- Thin trees on Guyer Ridge by 40 percent with no grading and no snowmaking for an additional expert ski run.

- Approval of snowmaking on Frenchman's Gulch terrain—the pipes are already in the ground and Sun Valley Co. is waiting for approval to attach snowmaking guns and turn the switch.

- Addition of snowmaking—Olympic Lane, Upper and Lower Broadway, Guyer Ridge, Upper Cozy, Upper Hemingway, Christmas Bowl and Brick's Island.

- Install terrain park on lower Greyhawk or, possibly, on Janss Pass, along the bare side of the south-facing slope.

- Re-align and grade Olympic Lane.

· Construct new Seattle Ridge ski trail.

- Install River Run gondola.

- Remove Exhibition chairlift.

- Remodel the Roundhouse Lodge and expand operating period.

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