CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — The promise of new jobs amid a recession is weakening the resolve of some rural residents to keep wildlands from development. That dynamic is evident around this historic mining town of about 1,650, which had long opposed a ski-resort expansion from nearby Mt. Crested Butte to the neighboring national-forest lands of Snodgrass Mountain. The proposal, which has come up several times in the past 30 years, had been repeatedly shot down by locals concerned skiing would ruin the popular hiking and biking area.

Jim Carlton/The Wall Street Journal A proposal to expand skiing from Colorado’s Mt. Crested Butte resort, shown, to nearby Snodgrass Mountain is drawing wide support.

But with the downturn, the Snodgrass expansion has been resurrected — and this time it’s drawing wide support. That’s because the development would likely fuel a job surge in an area reeling from a slide in real estate and tourism. Housing prices are off as much as 20% from their 2006 peak, local officials say, while sales-tax receipts have slipped as much as 15% from 2008. Meanwhile, unemployment in surrounding Gunnison County rose to 5.9% in June from 3.8% a year ago.
“The down economy definitely helps get people to support the expansion, because they understand the need to stimulate our ski product to get more people to come here,” says Joseph Fitzpatrick Jr., town manager of Mt. Crested Butte, at the base of the resort.
In some other Colorado towns, conservationists can’t find the money they need to keep land pristine. In the Mosquito Range near Denver, efforts keep privately-owned acreage attached to old mining claims free from development have so far failed because the working-class area couldn’t raise $5 million to put the land into a trust, says Jason Corzine of the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based environmental group.
But in southwestern Colorado, homeowners in upscale Telluride — including actors Tom Cruise and Darryl Hannah — raised $24.5 million in 2006 and 2007 for a local war chest of $50 million. Telluride used those funds to pay for the seizure of 570 acres of valley floor from San Miguel Valley Corp., which had planned to develop part of it. The Colorado Supreme Court in June upheld the seizure.
Elsewhere in the country, the recession is opening up some conservation opportunities, as landowners seek to sell properties where development is no longer economically feasible.
In Crested Butte, resort officials proposed at least three times between the late 1970s and 1994 to add the gentler terrain of Snodgrass to their steep ski area. But local residents complained so loudly that the Forest Service, which owns the land, retreated from allowing the application process to go through, keeping the bulldozers off Snodgrass, a pine-and aspen-covered peak of 11,145 feet.
In 2004, Vermont resort developers Tim and Diane Mueller bought the ski property and dusted off the Snodgrass plans. To reduce controversy, they downsized the proposed expansion to 275 acres from 417 acres and spent two years holding public meetings to muster support. CNL Lifestyle Properties Inc. has since bought Mt. Crested Butte Resort, but the Muellers continue to operate it.
Then the economy tanked. As business dried up, those who previously didn’t back the Snodgrass expansion changed their minds. “Standing still for us isn’t an option in a competitive world,” says Mickey Cooper, Crested Butte’s former mayor and a real-estate broker who previously was skeptical of an expansion.
Another supporter is Jon LaDuke, a local insulation and painting contractor. The 42-year-old, who previously thought the expansion proposal was too large, says he now desperately needs more business from the development; his bookings are so slow he has sidelined seven of 12 employees this year. “For those of us who have to generate an income here, it’s not easy,” he says.
In April 2008, a poll by the Crested Butte/ Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce found 60% of 134 businesses supported the expansion. By June 2008, a poll by a local online publication in nearby Gunnison tallied 88% of 250 respondents favoring the plan.
Not everyone is sold. Crested Butte’s town council in April 2008 passed a motion opposing the expansion. Alan Bernholtz, mayor of Crested Butte, said one of his concerns is the ski area hasn’t presented any evidence the Snodgrass expansion would boost tourism to the area. “Meanwhile, there are a lot of people in my community who feel that by not expanding we will attract more people by keeping it pristine,” Mr. Bernholtz says.
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