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Resorts face question: provide more skiing or let nature be

What's the value of leaving wildlife migration patterns undisturbed, compared with giving skiing vacationers access to exciting new mountains to ski? By implication, anyway, that question has been raised by a Colorado wildlife official. The immediate question involves the United States' biggest ski resort, Vail. But the basic issues affect most mountain resort communities.

This year, Vail has new high-capacity lifts that have drastically reduced lift lines. And now as the season winds down, the resort's new owner is already pushing forward expansion plans that could increase peak days from the current 16,400 skiers to 20,000.

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That would be after a proposed expansion into three additional back bowls in the next two to three years. If further expansion on Vail's master plan should take place in the next 10 years, a peak day could mean nearly 25,000 skiers.

Meanwhile, wildlife officer Bill Andree has warned about possible adverse effects on herds and migration from cumulative development in Eagle County, including that which would be spurred by Vail's proposed development, which was recently approved by county commissioners. According to the Vail Trail, Andree says lack of winter range is causing the state to reduce the Dowd Junction elk herd by one-third to one-half.

Although there is some pressure to get expansion moving in time for the 1989 World Championships at Vail, a mountain planner for the resort speculates that it might have to do a ``lynx study,'' since lynx are an endangered species in Colorado.

Most skiers don't quickly associate glamorous and sprawling Vail with lynx. But then neither do they usually associate mountain resorts with jobs, real estate sales, and services that make a rural economy robust instead of depressed.

As we learned in the 1960s, however, economic development can also irreversibly affect the environment. Required statements about the ``impact'' of planned development came out of that awareness.

People don't always agree on what the impact of development will be, much less on how to weigh the positive vs. negative aspects. A case in point is the longstanding fight between environmentalists and Killington, Vt., the East's biggest and most aggressively expansive ski resort.

The important thing is that all issues get full consideration. The lynx deserve a hearing as do real estate sales people, lift attendants, ski instructors, and those who wish to speak for migrating elk and deer and perhaps for future generations of Americans, who would appreciate being left some undeveloped mountains.

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As responsible developers will acknowledge, more lifts and bigger resorts make sense only if they don't wind up destroying what most people come to the mountains for in the first place. Is that still ``nature''? About ski lift designs

As liability insurance rates skyrocket, the latest news about ski lift problems is that Keystone's 14-month-old gondola has been closed down because of ``deterioration of the grip assembly,'' according to a resort spokesman. It will be completely rebuilt for next season, apparently at Keystone's own expense.

It's probably unrealistic, and perhaps counterproductive, to expect states to hire engineers who will second-guess and even veto lift company designs. But it should be noted that the manufacturer of the failed Keystone triple chairlift that injured 49 people last December brought in ``four independent people '' to look over the lift's redesigned bullwheel hub and housing after the accident.

Such an outside review did not take place when the lift was initially designed, manufacturer Jan Kunczynski indicated. It was ``mostly for psychological effect,'' he said. But it does seem to underscore the need for independent review of the many new lift designs that are appearing.

Perhaps a question and answer posed by Vail's director of lift operations, David Larson, at last summer's Vail Aerial Tramway and Ski Safety seminar is relevant: ``Can we say that leaving more to be decided between the lift designer and purchaser will enhance aerial tramway safety? I think not,'' he said.

Five other lifts of the same design as Keystone's chairlift were also redesigned. All are now believed to be operating.

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