Ski Cooper Expansion Draws Fire

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Leadville, CO, Jan. 25 (AP)--For the financially strapped Ski Cooper ski area, expansion isn't a luxury: It's a matter of economic survival.

For environmentalists, however, the expansion is about a different sort of survival. They say Ski Cooper's expansion would wipe out hundreds of acres of critical wildlife habitat.

The ski area, one of the surrounding county's last remaining assets, has proposed a $4 million upgrade that would add 40 acres of terrain and a new four-person lift that would replace its 30-year-old chairs.

The plan also includes a proposed land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service that would lead to a development beside the ski lift at the mountain's base.

Jeff Berman, president of the nonprofit Colorado Wild group, is opposed to the expansion and the proposed land exchange that would make it possible. A legal battle seems likely.

Unlike Vail, the wealthy resort town 40 miles to the north, Leadville and Lake County may not have the financial clout to win an extended court fight over the expansion.

Since the 3,000-employee Climax molybdenum mine shut down in 1985, Lake County's assessed value has plunged from $252 million to $42 million. About two-thirds of the county's residents drive elsewhere to work each day, and the county is dipping into its reserves to pay for roads and law enforcement.

``It's more than bad,'' said Jim Morrison, a longtime Leadville resident and county commissioner. ``In six years, the county will be broke.''

Lake County recently paid $1.5 million for 500 acres at the base of Mount Elbert, in hopes of trading it with the Forest Service for 800 acres of forest at the base of Ski Cooper.

Morrison said the county land is a haven for calving elk and hundreds of bird species, and could be preserved as open space. But Berman said the parcel has ``questionable'' habitat value which pales in comparison to the environmental value of the forest land.

``That land is situated at the most significant forested corridor along the Continental Divide,'' Berman said last week. ``We'll do everything we can to stop it.''

If Berman is successful, it could mean the end of Ski Cooper, which has generated just $1.6 million to put back into ski-area maintenance over the past six years.

The expansion plan likely would be scrapped if the ski area is forced to come up with an expensive environmental impact statement, Ski Cooper President Joe Fox said.

``We won't do any improvements,'' he said. ``We'll stay as is, and we will eventually close, just like the ma-and-pa supermarket.''

Copyright (c) 2000 The Associated Press