Epic Discovery project receives final approval | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Epic Discovery project receives final approval

Jack Barnwell

An ambitious, years-long collaborative effort to open the forests around Heavenly Mountain passed its final hurdle at the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Board on Thursday.

The Epic Discovery Project environmental impact report received an enthusiastic 4-0 vote from the board, signing off on the project’s development.

Vail Resorts, Heavenly Mountain Resort’s owner, introduced the Epic Discovery Project to three of its resorts after Congress of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunities Enhancement Act in 2011.

The EIR received the Tahoe Region Planning Agency’s blessing in April.

The law opened up new possibilities for mountain resorts by recognizing summer actives could have a profound benefits for tourism and environmental stewardship.

Andrew Strain from Heavenly, thanked the board for its decision to approve the EIR.

“It took a long process and it went very well, and that was because of the attitude of different people to come together and solve problems,” Strain said.

Strain said the project would have a huge impact for the South Shore in a number of ways.

“It engages people with their national forests,” Strain said. “For many people who visit it is their first encounter with the national forests.”

Epic Discovery was designed to engage and connect people with their national forests while balancing environmental conservation. The project will include improvements to water quality and stream zone environment protection.

Proposed activities include canopy tours, rope courses, hiking trails, education tours, an alpine coaster and mountain bike park.

Strain noted that Lake Tahoe’s summer visitors were much different from winter visitors. Winter visitors came for the snow.

“The summer visitor might not know what they want to do but can do so in secure environment and come away as better stewards of the environment,” Strain said.

He added that the Epic Discovery Plan aligns perfectly with TRPA’s updated area plan and benefits the local economy.

“We get to keep our best winter employees and have them become summer guides,” Strain said. “For people, Epic Discovery offers more stability and that means people get to put down roots instead of chasing seasonal jobs.”

Development alone will create construction-related jobs, and the year-round activities created by Epic Discovery will support “a healthier year-round economy” for the South Shore.

Lahontan geologist Bud Amorfini highlighted some of the changes and updates to the environmental process since it went through a public comment session.

Some of issues identified in the EIR are already being mitigated, Amorfini said. Those included Tahoe Douglas Fire District’s request for clear evacuation plans in certain areas, identifying helicopter landing zones to help facilitate evacuation and provide “rescue locator” signs on trails.

The EIR also identified 20 erosion hot spots around the Sky Meadow portion of Heavenly Creek, which are slated to be fixed, with the highest priority being fixed this year.

Other concerns included increased traffic during the summer and possible parking impacts. There may also be realignment of some of the dirt roads Heavenly uses for summer maintenance as part of Epic Discovery’s development. Protection of Native American resources also has been mitigated, with Heavenly and the U.S. Forest Service agreeing to involve local tribes in any Native American-related educational events.

Water quality and endangered species like the yellow-legged frog have also been addressed and will be mitigated. Heavenly has already put in $1 million in sediment control procedures and will execute an engineering study for better control.

U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Forest Supervisor Jeff Marsolais, like Strain, said the project has enormous potential despite initial hesitation from his agency.

“We see in private facilities great use, great environmental protection and public access being provided,” Marsolais said.

He added the Lake Tahoe basin is the second area in the country “to be on the leading edge of a major development.” The first is at Vail Mountain in Colorado, another Vail property.

“Vail is really leading the charge in many ways helping the forest service setting the bar very high by not just providing quality public access but also how to engage the public as a new constituency as environmental stewards,” Marsolais said.

“This Epic Discovery Project represents an exciting and collaborative model for sustainable, year-round recreation that balances environmental preservation and education with economic revitalization and improved recreational opportunities, consistent with TRPA’s Regional Plan,” TRPA Executive Director Joanne S. Marchetta in a news release Thursday.

With the approval comes the development, said Strain from Heavenly.

“Now we’ve got to develop it,” Strain said. “Ideally it would be implemented in phases over the next several years.”

In a news release following Thursday’s approval, Heavenly noted it has already started some work with the Forest Service, the League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Nature Conservancy to “ring scientific and educational content to the eco-discovery experiences.”

Initial phases will concentrate on the activities around Tamarack Lodge at the top of the Gondola. Development at East Peak Lake and Sky Meadows areas will follow.

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