Aspen Skiing Co. Logging of Pandora Land Reopens Offsite Impact Debate

Mak Keeling, senior project manager for Aspen Skiing Co., takes Pitkin County commissioners, staff and members of the public on a tour of part of the land that would be rezoned to make way for ski area expansion of Aspen Mountain, on September 1, 2021.
Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

Aspen Skiing Co.’s logging this spring on the Pandora section of Aspen Mountain has reignited a confusing situation where expert agencies are expressing conflicting views on the work’s potential impacts on elk.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife argues that logging could interfere with elk calving outside of Pandora on adjacent land. The state agency wants logging delayed until July.

The US Forest Service has approved Pandora’s project with no time restrictions on logging. He noted in his 2018 decision that there was no evidence of elk calving habitat on Pandora’s land. The Forest Service does not have the same level of concern as the CPW regarding the impacts of logging on offsite calving grounds.

The Forest Service is the decision-making body. CPW is simply a consulting agency.

“We don’t have any teeth into this,” CPW area wildlife manager Kurtis Tesch said Thursday. “We’re just making a recommendation.”

Skico crews began tearing down Pandora’s on May 2. A helicopter was used for about 10 hours over two days recently to transport downed logs to a storage area within Pandora’s boundaries.

Skico officials were aware of CPW’s concerns but took all actions required by the Forest Service, including surveys of elk and other wildlife before beginning, said Jeff Hanle, Skico’s vice president of communications. .

“We rely on the advice and endorsements given to us by those who are experts in the field,” Hanle said.

To further complicate the situation, Pitkin County also played a regulatory role and offered a different position than the Forest Service and CPW. Skico needed land on rezoned Aspen Mountain for the Pandora expansion to work. County commissioners granted this rezoning on the condition that no logging occurs on the rezoned lands by June 21. The county has not banned logging on Pandora lands which already have the necessary zoning.

The Forest Service and Pitkin County have approved Skico’s plan to add approximately 150 acres of skiable terrain and a high-speed detachable quad chairlift to Pandora.

Aaron Smith cuts down a tree as part of Aspen Skiing Co.’s work on Pandora’s terrain expansion and lift addition project.
Aspen Skiing Co./courtesy photo

Skico needs all the time it can get in two short high-altitude construction seasons to complete the project, Hanle said. This spring, Skico cleared land where a work road will be built to install the chairlift. Logging has also taken place on the lower two-thirds of the upwell line. The elevator will not be installed until next summer.

Road construction will begin in the fall, Mak Keeling, Skico’s senior project manager, said earlier this week. The elevator alignment needed to be recorded so that an elevator survey and profile could be completed. The manufacturer needs the profile before starting to build the lift.

The position of CPW

CPW has consistently urged Pitkin County and the U.S. Forest Service during Pandora’s extensive review processes to prohibit construction activities during elk calving.

In a June 4, 2018 letter to the Forest Service, CPW Regional Manager JT Romatzke wrote that Pandora’s is immediately adjacent to elk production areas.

“CPW recommends that all construction take place outside of the May 1 through July 15 dates,” Romatzke wrote in comments submitted for the Forest Service’s environmental assessment. “Furthermore, future use of this area should be prohibited except for winter skiing. Providing solitude for wildlife during breeding periods and throughout the summer is important.

Skico has agreed not to use Pandora’s land for summer activities on Aspen Mountain.

CPW’s Tesch confirmed the agency’s position when asked last week for an opinion on spring logging by Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman. Tesch said the momentum-producing area is “below Pandora’s elevator area and outside of the expansion area.” He noted that the agency recommends the activity restriction for elk production areas from May 15 to June 30.

“Due to the relative proximity to the production area and the current state of the elk herds in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, CPW would prefer that logging be halted until the end of June.”

In a Thursday interview with The Aspen Times, Tesch said disturbances in an elk production area could force elk cows with unborn calves to miscarry and force cows with newborn calves to leave.

“It is likely that they will leave and abandon this calf” if the disturbance is severe enough, he said.

MacFarlane Creek, which is mapped as an elk calving area based on research, is approximately 1 mile from where logging took place on the Pandora property. Noise from chainsaws and associated equipment is unlikely to disturb elk enough, Tesch said. However, the sound and especially the sight of a helicopter could create enough disturbance to trigger a “fight or flight” response in the moose, he said.

Tesch said if the elk cows could find shelter in areas such as groves of leafy aspen and were out of sight of the helicopter, it would minimize the effect. Sound alone won’t drive them away, he says.

Hanle said Skico would not use the helicopter again until late July or early August.

June remains the best time for elk calving, so Tesch said he would prefer to see logging stopped until July.

“In an ideal world, yes,” he said.

Forest Service position

The Forest Service responded to separate and independent comments regarding elk from CPW and the conservation group Wilderness Workshop during the 2018 environmental assessment on Pandora.

The Forest Service noted that its environmental assessment considered mandatory seasonal wildlife closures between May 1 and July 15 “for the protection of elk during calving season.”

“These restrictions have been considered for the construction, operation and maintenance phases of the project,” the Forest Service said.

A biologist conducted field surveys for elk activity on the Pandora grounds in July 2018.

“Elk calving evidence has not been identified; as such, this alternative was eliminated from the detailed analysis,” the Forest Service response stated.

A second season of surveys was planned within the Pandora site. If evidence of elk calving is found, the Forest Service said the plan of operation “may be changed.”

The issue of off-site disturbance of elk calving was not addressed in the EA.

Aspen Skiing Co.’s Mak Keeling points down the hill to where the Pandora lift is offered on Aspen Mountain on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Forest Service ruling on Pandora said that if tree-felling activities were undertaken before July 15, active migratory bird nest surveys must be undertaken first. Additionally, prior to any ground disturbance activity, Skico was obligated to investigate “susceptible Forest Service Region 2 species, including raptors and elk.”

White River National Forest public information officer David Boyd said those conditions were met.

The activity drew attention

Aspen Councilman John Doyle said he took notice when he learned that Skico had started mining the Pandora area from May.

“It just raised a red flag,” he said. “I remembered there was a restriction on when they could remove trees because there was an elk calving nearby.”

While there are no restrictions on logging dates in Forest Service approvals, he specifically reiterated CPW’s recommendation to wait until July and that Pitkin County had a restriction on logging on certain lands.

Doyle actively opposed Skico’s expansion into Pandora’s land. County commissioners voted 3 to 1 in November to approve the project. Poschman voted with the majority.

Doyle said he raised concerns about logging at Poschman.

Poschman told The Aspen Times that he inquired with the Forest Service, CPW and Skico last week about the timing of the logging.

“If there are elk calving, I don’t want helicopters flying over there,” Poschman said.

He said Tesch’s response “deduces to him that there is a problem.”

Asked if the Pitkin County approval documents should have banned logging on all land until July, Poschman said that would have made the issue more “watertight,” but he said that it was easy to guess now. The county held more than eight public hearings and received significant public comment on Pandora. The council weighed many issues, including the effects on wildlife.

Poschman noted that the county’s approval prohibited logging until June 21 on a significant portion of Pandora’s land. He was uncertain whether the county could have banned logging on Forest Service property.

Poschman said he contacted Skico officials with his concerns about the logging.

“I told them I would be a tough elk defender,” Poschman said.

He said he hopes Skico will not “compromise its wildlife values” for the sake of the project and he is confident they will correct their actions if necessary.

Doyle isn’t as forgiving of Skico.

“It seemed really clear to me that they should have waited,” Doyle said. “I think they knew better.”

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