Can Skiing Save a Town?

Fall Line
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The once-proud mining town of Leadville, Colo., is in a world of hurt. With the last of the region's booming mining operations closing a year ago, more than two-thirds of the town's workers now commute 30 miles over dangerous, snowy mountain passes to jobs in Vail and Summit County. Half the students in the local school system are on a subsidized lunch program, nine restaurants recently closed and the assessed value of Lake County property has plummeted from a high of $250 million to a low of $42 million. At this rate, elected officials say the county will be broke in a half-dozen years.

But Lake County's scrappy leaders have a plan, and it's one that the local citizenry has embraced. They are looking to Ski Cooper¿a community-owned ski area with 1,200 feet of vertical drop, 385 acres of terrain, two chairlifts and a $29 lift ticket¿as a clean source of economic revitalization. The ski area has asked to replace two ancient lifts and to build a chairlift as part of a 45-acre expansion that will provide much-needed expert terrain.

More significant¿and controversial¿is the county's proposed land trade with the U.S. Forest Service. The trade would have Lake County swap 500 acres of pristine wilderness at the foot of Colorado's highest peak for land to build an estimated 400-unit village near the base of Ski Cooper, which now includes little more than a small day lodge.

Lake County commissioner Jim Morrison says the plan will allow the county to control the base area development, to attract more skiers to Ski Cooper, to provide a few hundred jobs for residents and to create additional property tax dollars for the beleaguered county. Morrison is a fifth-generation Leadville resident who daily carries the burden of figuring out a long-range plan that will put food on the table for the county's 10,000 residents. He's the first to stress that the Ski Cooper plans won't make the county healthy overnight, but he considers them to be a critical first step out of the grave. There's a catch, however. Colorado Wild, an environmental group based in Boulder, Colo., is battling the land trade¿and has requested that the county undertake an estimated $1 million to $3 million study before any decisions are made. Colorado Wild president Jeff Berman says the proposed base village would be built in the most significant forested corridor for wildlife, including the lynx, along the Continental Divide.

Morrison, noting that 81 percent of Leadville locals backed the land trade in a 1998 independent telephone survey, resents the intrusion of Colorado Wild and strongly disagrees with the group's opinion on what is good for the local environment. He also stresses that in the face of economic collapse, Lake County commissioners have steadfastly worked to protect the environment through their Lake County Open Space Project. In the past year, more than a half-dozen privately owned ranches totalling some 7,000 acres have gone on the market. The county has worked with 20 agencies, ranging from Front Range towns seeking water rights to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, to ensure that these lands, located along the Arkansas River at the base of 14,441-foot Mount Elbert, don't fall into the wrong hands and get subdivided into ranchettes or used for mining.

Critical to these contiguous parcels is 500 acres of the Hallenbeck Ranch that Lake County bought for $1.5 million. Morrison says the land is home to calving elk and more than 100 species of birds, but that it will end up being paved over if it is sold to a private developer. The county has proposed trading that parcel to the Forest Service for land to build a village at the base of Ski Cooper, which seems to be in keeping with the public land philosophy of clustering growth around existing recreational areas.

Colorado Wild initially disagreed: Berman contended that the trade bait's value was questionable. Lake County officials, who have hiked the land for decades, cald that hogwash.

What everyone does agree on is that Ski Cooper is its own slice of heaven. Though it's located on Tennessee Pass just a few miles from Vail, the two ski areas are worlds apart. Ski Cooper records about 70,000 skier visits a year, roughly what Vail does in a good week. With its upgrades and expansion, the resort may eventually approach 100,000.

Value-minded patrons have enjoyed inexpensive skiing at Ski Cooper since 1941. The low-key ski area is nestled at a lofty 10,500 feet in the beautiful San Isabel Forest. It's also in the shadow of Camp Hale, where the famed Tenth Mountain Division trained for World War II, then went on to develop the sport of skiing in North America.

Joe Fox is the tall, friendly, down-to-earth president of Ski Cooper, which means he gets to groom trails and clean bathrooms as well as oversee the resort's eight full-time and 95 seasonal employees. Fox drives to work in a 20-year-old pickup and has the responsibility of feeding the three-legged cat named "Tripod" that lives in Ski Cooper's maintenance barn.

"We don't want to be Aspen or Vail," Fox says. "We just want to be a strong, medium-sized resort that doesn't have to worry all the time about finances." The terrain expansion will allow the resort to keep prices down because Ski Cooper will be able to attract more skiers. Fox also reveals an ulterior motive: "If we get a little better off financially, maybe I can hire someone else to clean the bathrooms."

Not long ago, Fox was worried that Ski Cooper itself might be forced out of business. Colorado Wild initially planned to fight the proposed expansion as well as the land swap. After detailing those intentions during a community meeting at a Leadville bakery, Berman took 90 minutes of abuse from locals. "If you are so concerned," city councilman Ron Purviance asked, "why don't you come and live here?"

Colorado Wild has since withdrawn most of its opposition to the upgrade/expansion, and it dispatched member Ben Doon to learn more about the success and plans of the Lake County Open Space Project. But Colorado Wild still wants an expensive Environmental Impact Study (EIS) conducted, rather than an Environmental Assessment (EA), prior to any approval. Lake County officials are frustrated because a previous ranger with the Forest Service indicated the swap could have been completed by the end of 1999. But bureaucratic delays continue, exacerbated by high turnover in the area's Forest Service office and by the increased focus on the lynx.

There are signs that Colorado Wild may be moderating its stance because of the circumstances surrounding Ski Cooper and because of the opportunity to preserve land along the Arkansas River. "(That's) a worthy goal that can benefit people and wildlife for generations," says Colorado Wild's Doon. "Is the forested land along Tennessee Pass worth the sacrifice? My answer right now is¿I don't know."

Whatever the outcome, the case has drawn attention from coast to coast. There's been a change in Washington, D.C., where national forest managers seem to be abandoning the concept of a "land of many uses" and making ecology the No. 1 priority. Environmentalists argue that ski areas have triggered rampant growth that needs to be stopped at all costs. Ski country supporters counter that skiing on Forest Service land allows the public to enjoy the outdoors, puts billions of dollars into local economies and accomplishes the task in a green way.

A chilling reminder of another industry and another way of life sits near Leadville, where the tailings of the closed Climax Molybdenum Mine sprawl over several square miles. Once the world's most productive mine, the molybdenum produced there was critical in the Allies' World War II victory. Until it closed in 1985, Climax pumped $1 billion into Leadville's economy. Today, Lake County hopes to replace that rich but environmentally questionable history with the bright future of skiing and recreation. The locals, in fact, are banking on it.

To comment on the Ski Cooper plan, contact Rick Newton, District Ranger, San Isabel Forest, 2015 N. Poplar, Leadville, Colo. 80461 or call (719) 486-0749. Ski Cooper is a superb sidetrip for skiers visiting the large resorts of Eagle and Summit counties. Contact Ski Cooper at (719) 486-3684, www.skicooper.com. For information on Leadville, contact the Greater Leadville Area Chamber, (800) 933-3901; for lodging information call (800) 748-2057. The locals, in fact, are banking on it.

To comment on the Ski Cooper plan, contact Rick Newton, District Ranger, San Isabel Forest, 2015 N. Poplar, Leadville, Colo. 80461 or call (719) 486-0749. Ski Cooper is a superb sidetrip for skiers visiting the large resorts of Eagle and Summit counties. Contact Ski Cooper at (719) 486-3684, www.skicooper.com. For information on Leadville, contact the Greater Leadville Area Chamber, (800) 933-3901; for lodging information call (800) 748-2057.

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