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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Trees Must Make Way|for Ski Slopes in Colorado

(CN) - Developers trying to expand a ski resort in the mountain wilderness of Colorado can move forward with their forest-clearing plans, a federal judge ruled.

Click here to read Courthouse News' Environmental Law Review.

After the U.S. Forest Service gave the Aspen Skiing Company permission to cut trees in the White River National Forest, The Ark Initiative and its founder Donald Duerr sued the agency for a preliminary injunction. Aspen Skiing intervened in the case, which demands that the U.S. Forest Service justify its decision.

But U.S. District Judge James Boarsberg dismissed the complaint Friday, citing a Colorado law that allows ski resorts to skirt forestry regulations.

The Colorado Roadless Areas Rule, adopted in 2006, protects "ski areas" from being designated as "roadless" by the Forest Service, Boarsberg ruled.

In a "roadless" area, "trees may not be cut, sold, or removed" without special permission from the Forest Service, according to the 20-page decision.

Central to both parties' arguments were their respective interpretations of the term "roadless," a distinction bestowed by the Forest Service upon pristine tracts of land "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."

While the federal Roadless Area Conservation Rule establishes criteria through which land can be designated as "roadless," the court notes that the more-specialized Colorado Roadless Areas Rule supersedes the initial regulation and introduces a key statute.

The most recent legislation precludes "existing permitted or allocated ski areas" from receiving "roadless" designations, according to the court.

The land in question, a 1 square-mile plot on Burnt Mountain, lies completely within the Snowmass Ski Area owned by the Aspen Skiing Company.

"It does not matter whether the Burnt Mountain parcel has the characteristics of a roadless area," Boarsberg wrote. "The parcel is inside Snowmass Ski Area, so the Colorado Roadless Rule precludes designating it roadless."

In July, the initiative sent the Forest Service an "emergency petition" to have the land in question designated as "roadless," claiming that the Burnt Mountain wilderness area meets all of the criteria established by the Forest Service to deem an area as such.

The Forest Service rejected the initiative's petition, citing the Colorado Roadless Areas Rule. It noted that the service had declined to designate the Burnt Mountain parcel as "roadless" on several prior occasions because it was a licensed "ski area."

"The roadless area inventory for the Colorado Roadless Rule excluded lands within ski area permitted boundaries," Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell wrote the group. "The expansion activities proposed by the Aspen Ski Company are within their Master Development Plan in the permitted boundary and outside of the Burnt Mountain CRA."

Boasberg said the environmental challengers "should have participated in the rulemaking" if they wanted roadless designations in ski areas.

In denying the injunction request, the court said that the Forest Service's two letters to the initiative in response to the petition represented sufficient justification of its decision to allow the resort's expansion.

This isn't Burnt Mountain's first appearance in federal court. In 2006, The Ark Initiative unsuccessfully sued the Forest Service over the same plot of land, arguing before the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado that the service had abused its discretion by excluding the plot from its inventory of "roadless" areas.

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