What’s at Stake in Prospect Basin

Protecting Our Year-Round Playground
By: Lance Waring

In 1998, the Telluride Ski & Golf Company (Telski) began the public process required to expand the resort’s skiable terrain into Prospect Basin. Previously, this area had been a quiet place, visited only by a few hardy Nordic skiers and summertime hikers.

After a protracted series of negotiations with San Miguel County, the Town of Telluride and local environmentalists, Telski emerged with the go-ahead to carefully construct ski lifts and trails in Prospect Basin. Since then, thousands of skiers have enjoyed the undulating terrain and big views created by the expansion.

Five years later, it’s time to pose the question: How has the ski resort’s expansion affected Prospect Basin? Telski Environmental Program Manager Deanna Belch keeps a watchful eye over the ecology of the ski area. In Prospect Basin, she believes there are at least three critical ecological indicators: the lynx, the elk, and the fens.

Since 1999, the Colorado Division of Wildlife reintroduced more than 100 lynx in the southern San Juans. By 2001, several of the once-native cats had settled around Lizard Head Pass, and lynx sightings are now a regular occurrence in Prospect Basin. “A few lucky snow cat drivers and ski patrollers have seen lynx with kittens up there,” says Belch. “Signs of lynx are seen frequently on our snowshoe tours.”

Lynx prefer to live at altitude on heavily timbered north-facing slopes of thirty degrees or more (terrain also coveted by skiers). Eighty percent of a lynx’s diet is comprised of snowshoe hare. Competitively, the lynx’s advantage is its proportionally gigantic paws, which provide extra surface area in deep snow, allowing the nimble cat year-round predation privileges.

In order to accommodate the cats, Telski’s designers avoided placing runs in prime lynx habitat, deliberately leaving islands of trees scattered throughout new trails. Their intent was to preserve the lynx’s deep-snow advantage and habitat connectivity because the animals prefer forests that give way to open areas. “If all the snow is compacted by (ski area) grooming, coyotes and other predators become as mobile as the lynx,” explains Belch. “We want to keep the lynx where it belongs in the food chain.”

Elk are also maintaining their foothold in Prospect Basin. Every year, from May 20 through July 1, the basin is closed to human visitors, allowing the resident elk to calve without being disturbed. The Telluride community holds the federally mandated closure sacred. “Absolutely nobody is permitted to go into Prospect during elk calving season,” emphasizes Belch. We need special permission from the USFS for even a couple of us to walk in and monitor the fens. Even then, we park out of the basin and carry in our equipment.”

What draws lynx and elk to Prospect Basin? The answer lies partially in a unique series of peat-forming wetlands called “fens.” Fens are defined as “year-round wetlands that are fed by ground water as well as surface flow.” All wetlands are precious-as interstices between forest and meadow, as environmental filters, and as wildlife habitat. But these alpine fens are especially precious, because of their rarity-so rare, in fact, that the word “fen” has only recently become a part of the scientific lexicon here in the United States.

The development of Prospect Basin is responsible for a regional upswing in fen awareness. When the expansion was first proposed, a fen oversight committee, comprised of leading scientists and local environmentalists, formed to monitor the health of these unique wetlands. Funded by Telski as part of the expansion agreement with San Miguel County and Sheep Mountain Alliance, the committee’s initial five years of data have been encouraging. “The five fens in Prospect remain healthy,” says Telski Hydrologic Technician Pat Drew. “The efforts to minimize our impact seem to have paid off.”

Drew refers to a series of innovative construction techniques that Telski used when cutting ski runs in Prospect. For example, Telski opted for the more expensive choice-hand-logging of the trees and removal by helicopter. These actions ensured that the sensitive alpine environment was not as disturbed as it otherwise would have been by heavy machinery or by dragging cut trees along the ground. Such soil erosion could have led to sediments washing into the fens, disrupting their hydrology. Telski took another step in erosion control by chipping all the downed trees and spreading the mulch over exposed steep areas. Finally, they installed bridges at all stream crossings to again minimize possible sediments polluting the watershed.

The San Juans Fen Partnership’s final report should serve as a baseline for future fen ecosystem studies. According to hydrologist Drew, “This study is unique in North America. We have been sharing the results with the Mountain Studies Institute in Silverton. Our mutual goal is to insert fen preservation and protection language into the Forest Service’s forest management plans. Eventually, that language will help to preserve fens throughout the entire San Juans.”

If the lynx, elk and fens are all faring well, perhaps the environmental impact of Telski’s expansion into Prospect Basin was minimal, though we must not overlook that with the creation of a free gondola, access to the basin is easier. The gondola-that pedestrian-friendly link between the towns of Telluride and Mountain Village-is indirectly responsible for some of the summertime degradation of Prospect Basin. Exiting at Station St. Sophia gives hikers and bikers an instant bonus of 1,000 sweat-free vertical feet. While hiking and biking trails extend down both sides of the ridge from the gondola mid-station, the beauty of the high country lures many summer recreationalists into Prospect Basin.

The increasing numbers of mountain bikers and hikers in Prospect Basin concerns Belch. “More people visiting means more likelihood of disturbing the wildlife or the fens. Also, at this time, Telski has no official summer trail system. We do have summer access roads, but they are authorized only for our summer maintenance equipment. I foresee wildlife conflicts if recreation continues to increase without the proper safeguards in place.”

United States Forest Service Recreation Manager Scott Spielman senses trouble in Prospect Basin. “In the last five years, a number of renegade trails have been built around the ski area. The trail builders do not know where the fens are located, nor do they follow the best management practices, such as building water bars to channel runoff from the trails they create.” Some of the renegade trails have been hacked into Prospect’s steep hillsides with pristine fens tucked below. Now the possibility of sediment from the renegade trails polluting the fens and other watercourses exists. It would be truly ironic if Telski’s expansion activities in Prospect left the fens undisturbed, only to have a few individuals building trails for their mountain bikes destroy the critical element of Prospect’s wetland ecology.

Ranger Spielman has met with Telski officials to discuss his concerns. For the moment, they have decided to wait to act because the summer of 2006 will see the construction of fifteen miles of new single track throughout the Mountain Village side of the ski resort, including Prospect Basin.

The project is called “Telluride Trails” and was set in motion three years ago when the USFS was awarded a $500,000 federal grant. Tony Forrest, trails manager for Mountain Village, offers an optimistic progress report. “We have surveyed the trails, completed the National Environmental Policy Act review, and we have all the easements in place. This summer we plan to start construction.” Time will tell if Forrest’s new environmentally savvy trails are enough to deter local mountain bikers from more unsanctioned trail building.

Telski’s efforts to protect the fens and preserve wildlife habitat during expansion into Prospect Basin seems to have been effective during these first five years. Even with hordes of alpine skiers flooding her flanks, the basin’s ecology remains intact during the winter months. But can we avoid loving the place to death during the summer? If Telluriders create a self-imposed ban on renegade trail building and renew their commitment to leave no trace, we have the opportunity and the obligation to prove that summertime hikers and bikers can pass lightly over Prospect Basin’s fragile alpine landscape.