Photo by Rob McCormack in Williams Lake Basin, New Mexico
May 9, 2023
Winter Wildlands Summary: Carson National Forest is asking for public comments on its analysis of Taos Ski Valley Inc.’s proposal to build a gondola and other resort infrastructure. Because this is one of the least substantive Environmental Assessments we have ever reviewed, it strikes us as a good opportunity to bring attention to why the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) matters. Plus, this comment period is an important opportunity to protect public access to the Wheeler Peak Wilderness and water quality in the Rio Hondo Watershed. Comments are due May 22, 2023 – we share below our concerns in detail as well as how to comment at the end.
Setting the NEPA Stage
If you have been following Winter Wildlands Alliance for any amount of time, you have probably read something about how important the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is for protecting public lands.
NEPA is the federal law that requires government agencies to make informed decisions and provide for public notice and comment on those decisions. It underlies a LOT of the work we do and, since 2020, we have been fighting to uphold the integrity of this law—to protect the public’s right to know and comment and to ensure that the Forest Service and other agencies consider best-available science and other important information when making decisions that will affect our environment.
However, even with relatively strong NEPA regulations in place, not every environmental review hits the mark on the first draft.
Enter Taos, New Mexico
Taos Ski Valley, Inc. (TSVI) – the ski resort in the Village of Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico – has asked the Carson National Forest for permission to build a new base-to-base gondola, a new on-mountain restaurant, Nordic and snowshoe trails, a hiking trail, and a support facility. The ski area has also proposed installing a 5-million-gallon water storage tank in order to allow for a significant increase in snowmaking. In addition, they would like to replace two chairlifts and relocate (and enlarge) the current on-mountain restaurant.
Normally, Winter Wildlands Alliance does not get too involved in ski area development projects that are within a resort’s existing footprint, but in this case local backcountry skiers (Taos Mountain Alliance) reached out to us with concerns that the proposed gondola could reduce or eliminate public access to one of the most popular backcountry skiing and snowshoeing trailheads in New Mexico (which accesses Williams Lake, the Wheeler Peak Wilderness, and the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness). Local community members are also concerned that the increased water use from TSVI’s proposals wouldn’t be sustainable with the limited amount of water available in the Rio Hondo Watershed, especially given the fact that the Village of Taos Ski Valley and the ski resort already run into issues with their water systems when visitation is high.
After hearing about these concerns, we dug into the Carson National Forest’s Environmental Assessment.
Immediate Red Flags
The fact that the Carson National Forest decided an Environmental Assessment (EA)—rather than a more robust Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)—was a sufficient level of analysis was our first red flag.
Then we realized the Forest Service had only considered one alternative in its analysis: TSVI’s Proposed Action. With only one alternative, the EA does not analyze the impacts of the proposed projects because it does not compare the Proposed Action to anything else. The EA didn’t even analyze a “no action alternative,” much less any alternatives that considered suggestions raised by the public during the initial scoping comment period in 2022. Clocking in at a mere 59 pages, the EA is more focused on describing TSVI’s desired projects than on seriously considering the impacts of those projects or how TSVIs goals might be achieved through other means.
As with almost all NEPA analyses for ski area projects on Forest Service lands, this EA was written by a third party contractor selected and paid by TSVI. This same contractor also produced the resort’s 2021 Master Development Plan (MDP), which—thanks to Forest Service policy that really needs to be updated—was accepted by the Forest Service with no public input or environmental review.
In 2022, TSVI requested permission from the Carson National Forest to implement some of the projects in the MDP, at which point the Forest Service issued a scoping notice and solicited public input as required by NEPA. Although over 300 people and organizations submitted scoping comments in 2022, those comments that didn’t conform to the stated purpose and need of the project—objectives identified by TSVI in their MDP—were brushed aside as “alternative[s] considered but not carried forward for detailed analysis”. This, in turn, led the Forest Service to consider TSVI’s Proposed Action as the only alternative in the EA.
With only one option, it’s easy to guess what the final decision will be. That is, unless we can rally enough public comment to push the Forest Service to conduct the level of environmental review that this project merits: that is, an Environmental Impact Statement with a full range of different alternatives.
Wait, this feels sketchy…
If this NEPA process seems sketchy to you, you’re in good company. The first public meeting that the Forest Service hosted was well attended (watch the full video here) by concerned citizens worried about their water and public lands and skeptical of the EA’s conclusions that TSVI’s proposed projects wouldn’t have any significant environmental effects.
Here’s what we learned at that meeting:
- Concern 1: TSVI is proposing significantly increasing their snowmaking capacity (with a 5 million-gallon tank), building a new restaurant, and expanding the existing on-mountain restaurant. The EA states that these developments won’t affect water quality or quantity in the Rio Hondo Watershed, based on an assumption that TSVI has 200 acre-feet of water rights. However, TSVI’s actual water rights only allow for 21.45 acre-feet of consumptive use, with less (only 0.11 acre-feet daily) allowed between April 11th and October 25th annually. Downstream communities who rely on the Rio Hondo are very concerned that if TSVI grows it, they will lose the water they depend upon. There is also a lot of concern over whether TSVI has an adequate plan for dealing with increased septic and wastewater loads, which the EA doesn’t analyze at all. Any untreated or under-treated wastewater will end up in the Rio Hondo River, affecting water quality for downstream communities. And many question whether TSVI’s plans are even possible. This season, TSVI shut down twice because of water infrastructure failures.
- Concern 2. TSVI is proposing to build a gondola to connect the Frontside and Kachina Base Areas. Local backcountry skiers (and other Wilderness visitors) are worried that gondola construction will block access to the Williams Lake trailhead. Access to the trailhead could be restricted or eliminated if the public is no longer allowed to drive along the Village roads from the Frontside base area to the trailhead. This is one of the most popular backcountry skiing access points in New Mexico, but the Forest Service trailhead and a short portion of the historic trail (and only viable winter route) are located on private property owned by the ski resort and the resort owner’s holding companies. The resort’s MDP indicates that one purpose of the gondola is to reduce traffic on the trailhead access road, by having people use the gondola instead of driving to the Kachina base area or Williams Lake trailhead. Thus, backcountry skiers are also worried that eventually access to the Williams Lake trailhead will be restricted to those who pay to use the gondola. The EA doesn’t consider how TSVI’s proposed gondola or other developments in the MDP will affect public access to the Wilderness other than a brief discussion of increased visitation from gondola riders.
Take Action: How to Submit Your Comment
The Forest Service is accepting comments on the EA until May 22, 2023, directly via their online form. Custom and informed comments make a great impact. We have included key points below for you to use. If you need help during this process, please feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com.
In your comments, we encourage you to make the following key points:
- This project must be analyzed with an Environmental Impact Statement that includes alternatives to the Proposed Action based on input received from public comments. The range of alternatives should include alternatives without the base-to-base gondola and without the water tank and booster station.
- The water rights assumption in the EA is incorrect. The EIS should consider Taos Ski Valley’s proposals in light of the resort’s actual water rights of 21.45 acre-feet, which is limited to 0.11 acre-feet of daily use allowed between April 11th and October 25th. The EIS should analyze an alternative that places TSVI’s potential water usage in context of the resort’s allocated water rights.
- The EA fails to disclose impacts to public lands access. The EIS must consider how the gondola will affect public access to the Williams Lake trailhead. This analysis must include consideration of winter access.
- Given the likely negative impacts to Wilderness access the Forest Service should deny the base-to-base gondola.
- The Forest Service should hold off on considering the 5 million gallon water tank, booster station, and new restaurant until the Village of Taos Ski Valley’s water infrastructure is stabilized.