Last summer, when the Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort released news of its plan for expanding and renovating the ski area an hour from the Strip, a collective cheer went up on Mount Charleston … followed by a reflective pause.
Winter-loving mountain residents are happy to finally get the ski resort they feel they—and greater Las Vegas—deserve. At the same time, community and environmental activists understand that any development has a price. With state roads to the area clogged and the Mount Charleston blue butterfly a candidate for the endangered species list, they hope the ski resort will live up to its promise to pay that price in environmentally sound planning, so the mountain doesn’t pay it in polluted air and trampled habitat down the road.
The resort is in Lee Canyon, part of the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, a 316,000-acre section of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The area is filled with meadows, trails and snowcapped peaks. But for Las Vegas skiers, it has never been quite what Big Bear, Calif., is to Los Angeles: There are 16 runs and four lifts at Lee Canyon, compared with Big Bear Mountain Resorts’ 55 runs and 26 lifts.
But the Las Vegas resort had enough potential to lure serious buyers with serious plans, and in 2003 Powdr Corp. and Tom Thomas of the Thomas & Mack Development Group bought the property and began planning its future. The resort, says Powdr Corp. CEO John Cumming, is a “hidden gem.” And now Powdr is ready to make it a little less hidden.
Powdr’s master development plan would add 50 trails and 10 lifts to the resort. It includes larger guest facilities, a restaurant, mountain bike rentals and more parking. The idea is to transform the resort into a year-round event and recreation destination.
The plan is expected to take about a decade to complete, but several changes have already taken place. Two new yurts now house expanded ski programs. Outdoor seating at the base lodge is growing to 5,000 square feet, and a third yurt will be used for groups and special events.
“On opening day we will be positioned to create top-to-bottom powder on every run,” says Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort president and general manager Kevin Stickelman, referring to new high-efficiency snow guns that will blanket the mountainside with powder.
That powder will be made from the 7.5 million-gallon snow-making pond, which previously held 1.6 million gallons of water. Asked about the wisdom of making snow in the high desert, a resort spokeswoman says the primary source for water is an underground spring at an elevation of about 9,000 feet, so the pond will refill naturally. Rob Mrowka, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, says such a system has little environmental impact, provided it captures the flow of water with minimal physical alterations to the natural spring.
Powdr and the resort promise all the changes will be made with minimum harm to the environment. If the design of the facilities is any indication, the company is serious about sustainability. In the hope of obtaining Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification, the design includes passive solar heating in winter and natural shade and breeze cooling in summer; energy-efficient lighting and low-flow plumbing fixtures; and reusable dishes and flatware instead of disposable. The company hired a LEED-accredited sustainability consultant, Mary Louise Vidas, to be part of the design team, and conducted an eco-charette this summer to establish green goals and objectives.
Potential impact on plant and animal life is also being considered. The resort, which sits on federal land, operates through a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service. The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest has accepted the master plan with the understanding that the resort and forest service officials will evaluate each project according to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
This is significant because NEPA requires the evaluation of impact on species designated as threatened or endangered by the Environmental Species Act, a category that will likely include the aforementioned blue butterfly, which—due to the preponderance of plants on which it feeds and lays eggs—seems to love Lee Canyon almost as much as Powdr Corp.
The butterfly recently became a candidate species eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Nobody can touch the habitat of an endangered or threatened species without a good plan for putting it back the way they found it. To that end, Powdr hired biologist and botanist Joseph Betzler to work with designers and the Forest Service to avoid threatened and endangered species’ habitats and improve the area through restoration and revegetation.
Still, it’s hard to imagine turning a mob loose on a mountainside to hike, ride bikes and ski, then expecting them to avoid stepping on the Clokey fleabane or Torrey’s milkvetch (Mount Charleston blue butterfly’s food and hatch pad, respectively), both of which are found in the ski area, Mrowka says.
There’s an inherent collision of interests in the Spring Mountains, Mrowka says. The legislation that created the national recreation area named its two primary purposes as protecting biological diversity and providing recreation for the Las Vegas area. “A lot of the places where people like to play are the places where we have rare plants and animals,” he says. “There’s a built-in conflict.”
Part of the solution, Stickelman says, is to concentrate potential environmental impact into areas where the public can be controlled—“manageable impact zones,” he calls them.
“We have the ability to give people a place to eat, go to the bathroom, throw away their trash. … It benefits everyone,” he says. “I see our role as not just protecting the environment, but also educating the public on the importance of the species in the area.”
Companies such as Powdr have an intrinsic stake in environmental stewardship. The trade group Snowsports Industries America helps fight global warming, because it directly threatens its members’ bottom line: The less it snows and the shorter winters become, the less money they’ll make.
Mrowka believes the Forest Service also has good intentions, although he is nonetheless concerned. “We will be actively participating in the process, watching the results, and if we feel it’s necessary, we will litigate. At this point, it’s way too early to see how it’s going to work out. There may be a way for the ski resort to avoid the butterfly and its plants.”
Sadly, all the babying of butterflies and milkvetch plants in the world wouldn’t change one simple fact: The road leading to Lee Canyon is inadequate to support the heavy traffic an expanded ski resort may cause, and the prospects of expanding it are nil.
“We’re all delighted about the master plan,” says Stephanie Myers, president of CaseMakers and a long-time Lee Canyon resident. “[But] I’m concerned that they’re expanding, and the infrastructure isn’t. We’ll still have the same two-lane highway to get there. So, we’ll have more problems with congestion.”
Melvin McCallum, a planner for the Nevada Department of Transportation, says a 2005 study identified safety concerns on State Route 156 (Kyle Canyon Road) caused by heavy traffic. It recommended additional parking, a bike lane, intersection improvements, signage, a welcome center and other work. Accordingly, the transportation department improved signage throughout Mount Charleston, and has finally rounded up enough funding to start designing a bike lane on Kyle Canyon Road.
But that won’t help Lee Canyon. McCallum says the Forest Service told NDOT that Lee Canyon Road couldn’t be considered for similar improvements because of endangered species concerns, bike trails and other environmental issues.
So, NDOT recommended that stakeholders build a parking lot near the intersection of Interstate 95 and Lee Canyon Road, and shuttle large groups from there to recreation areas. That option was out, because the Forest Service would have had to take over ownership of the road from NDOT and close it off in order to control traffic.
“There’s no desire to shut off the roads,” says Stephanie Phillips, deputy forest supervisor for Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. “We don’t have a lot of opportunity to expand parking because of the topography, and we can’t pave over butterfly habitat. Typically our option for managing parking is to let people know it’s limited, and if you’re not first to arrive, you’ll need to look for alternative transportation.”
She applauds the resort for stepping in and starting a shuttle service to the mountain. According to Stickelman, buses that ran twice daily last winter season were almost always full.
This year, however, there was still no bus schedule when ski season officially opened in November. The grant that paid for the program over the past three seasons ran out, but another grant is in place, and Stickelman anticipates the shuttle service will begin by the holidays.
Despite widespread approval of the resort’s plans, some skeptics still question the motives. In the 2011 legislative session, the resort backed Senate Bill 232, which exempts the resort from development restrictions that the community pushed through the 2009 Legislature.
The resort plans to develop a sledding area there, with a concession stand, parking and restrooms—all improvements, it says, to the current perceived free-for-all that allows people to tube down whatever hill they think looks fun, often hurting themselves in the process.
Neighborhood activists welcome a solution to the problem of hoards of snow-seekers parking and relieving themselves along community roads, but they’re not happy about the method used for arriving at this solution.
“The negative side is that [the resort] used the political system to get around a law the community enacted in 2009,” Myers says. “There is a blueprint now for anybody who wants to do commercial development here.”
“What’s going on with their expansion is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Ron McMenemy, president of Camp Lady of the Snows Homeowners Association. “There’s the whole problem with the snow play area, which is privately owned and will have to be zoned for all that they want to do.”
He adds that Clark County bears some responsibility, not only because of its involvement in zoning, but also because it owns 5 acres of the land exempted from National Recreation Area restrictions by SB232. (County officials did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Despite their skepticism, Myers and McMenemy remain optimistic. “Powdr Corp. and the Thomas and Mack families have done a lot of good in this community,” McMenemy says. “They are good caretakers of this mountain. It’s going to be a long, loving discussion between all the parties involved to protect the mountain. … In the end, everyone will do the right thing, because we’ll make sure they do.”