Predictions that less snow will fall in mountain regions as the planet warms may disrupt multimillion-dollar plans to improve Chapman Hill, Durango’s in-town ski area, city officials said.
The 2018 plan suggests the city invest more than $3 million to upgrade the ski slope, including regrading portions of the hillside, purchasing new snowmaking equipment and improving existing infrastructure. Specifically, plans call for an almost $1 million investment in a chairlift to replace the rope tow that has tugged skiers up Chapman Hill for more than 70 years.
But predictions that global average temperatures will continue to rise may give city officials pause when considering investments in winter-focused improvements to the decades-old, city-operated recreation amenity, said Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz.
“If it comes to a point where it (the climate) is changing more quickly before we even make the improvements, they may not even be made,” she said.
Climate scientists who wrote the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change report said with “high confidence” that “variability and decline in natural snow cover have compromised the operation of low-elevation ski resorts.”
The Parks and Recreation Department started making snow at Chapman Hill during the 2011-12 season to improve conditions, Metz said. City workers use an average of 1.4 million gallons of water to make snow each year, an activity that has increased operating expense by tens of thousands of dollars, city documents show.
But temperature trends suggest Durango may not get cold enough for long enough in the coming decades to make snow at Chapman Hill. Snowmaking at Chapman Hill requires sustained temperatures at or below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, Metz said.
The Parks and Recreation Department may inject additives into snowmaking water to help it freeze at warmer temperatures, she said. But as global temperatures continue to rise, it’s clear that opportunities to make snow will become more rare, said Seth Furtney, who has spent about five years on the Parks and Recreation advisory board.
“At some point, we won’t be able to make snow at this altitude,” he said. “It’s pretty clear this (Chapman Hill) is a declining asset.”
Modest investments to improve lighting, slope grade and a conveyor lift may be appropriate, Furtney said. But other spending priorities – like purchasing and developing Durango Mesa – may override plans to improve an amenity that could become obsolete, he said.
Spending almost $1 million on a chairlift at Chapman Hill “would be foolish,” said Dolph Kuss, who has worked for decades to make the ski area what it is today. There aren’t enough people who would use it to justify the expense, and people wouldn’t be able to get off halfway up the mountain on easier terrain like they can now, he said.
“If you want to save money, keep the rope tow going, keep it going until it dies,” Kuss said. “Replace it with another rope tow or surface lift.”
Kuss served as a recreation director for La Plata County and the city of Durango beginning in 1953, he said. He arranged the purchase of the existing rope tow in 1954, he said.
The ski area has made skiing and snowboarding accessible to children and young families in Durango for decades, Kuss said. Chapman Hill serves as a training ground before novice skiers and snowboarders take to Purgatory Resort.
The best way to improve Chapman Hill is to expand skiable terrain, Kuss said. But the 7-acre property doesn’t offer much room to grow, Metz said, and the city is waiting for Atmos Energy to move a gas line buried at the top of the hill before making any improvements.
The decision ultimately will be subject to “a very intense and robust public process,” said City Councilor Chris Bettin, who serves as the council’s liaison to the Parks and Recreation advisory board. Major parks projects are subject to scrutiny from the seven-person Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and any spending must be approved by Durango City Council.
Durango’s proposed Parks and Recreation master plan, which took years to draft, includes more than $300 million in projects. Bettin said he would be “surprised” if city staff or the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board recommended that City Council spend millions to improve the ski area.
“Those kinds of very expensive capital improvements will be challenging and controversial,” Bettin said.
Chapman Hill, however, is more than a ski hill, he said.
It provides access to mountain biking trails. An ice rink on the property often turns a profit. Improvements to the lift system could connect Florida Road to Rim Drive, providing easier pedestrian access between Fort Lewis College and the city’s center, Bettin said.
“There’s this giant amenity on a mesa above the town and it’s only accessible by car, unless you want to walk,” he said. “Would that be something the community values?”