When the U.S. Forest Service released its draft decision, late last winter, on the expansion plans for Eldora Mountain Resort, it looked like the proprietors would get literally everything they asked for.

Despite strong opposition from a number of groups, including Boulder County and area homeowners, the Forest Service seemed poised to grant Eldora’s operators the right not only to construct new runs and lifts, but also to expand their boundary area—to the south and east across existing backcountry trails at Jenny Creek and, more contentiously, to the north down to almost the banks of Middle Boulder Creek and the small town of Eldora.

But a few weeks ago, the Forest Service abruptly and unexpectedly reversed itself. The final decision, released October 1, allows Eldora to pursue all proposed improvements inside the area, while the boundary expansion was deferred indefinitely.

“I went back and looked at the records, the public comments, and the results of the objection resolution meeting,” Forest Supervisor Ron Archuleta told 5280 of the process that led to his decision. “And I did talk with the stakeholders after the draft decision went out to understand their positions. Based on all that, I felt there was opportunity for some additional discussion about expanding outside the current use boundary.”

(Read more about Eldora’s expansion plans)

It’s safe to say that the news caught almost everyone by surprise. “Throughout this process, the potential decision was getting worse with each step, so we did not expect this outcome,” says Dave Hallock, coordinator of the Middle Boulder Creek Coalition (MBCC), a collection of concerned groups opposed to the expansion, including the Sierra Club and area homeowners.

For its part, representatives of the ski area sent out a release that made its disappointment clear. “This decision is very different from the Draft Record of Decision issued earlier this spring, and we are very perplexed by it,” wrote Jim Spenst, Eldora’s planning director and former general manager.

Despite the about-face, for now, the expansion decision is only deferred, not denied. “I recognize that the proposed projects associated with the boundary expansion are contentious,” Archuleta wrote in his decision. “By deferring the decision…I have not foreclosed the possibility of approving these projects in the future.”

Archuleta called for the ski area to work “collaboratively” with “interested parties” to arrive at a solution. What he didn’t do was spell out what that process should look like or who should lead it. “There’s no specific process or timeline,” he says. “I don’t really have a vision for what it looks like.”

His idea, essentially, is for the ski area and concerned objectors to come together and hammer out some kind of mutually agreeable solution. While this may seem idealistic, both sides have an incentive to do just that. If Eldora chooses not to engage with other interested parties, then the current decision will simply stand, Archuleta says. But the objectors can’t stalemate the expansion indefinitely, either. “Because I deferred the decision, the forest supervisor could come back and make a decision to allow the expansion based on the original draft and environmental impact statement,” Archuleta says.

Still, compromise may be elusive. Hallock notes that the current decision, which allows the ski area to make improvements in the existing use boundary, was one of the options his group had presented to the Forest Service. In their opinion, the Middle Boulder Creek expansion is a bright red line. A key issue is the decision’s removal of language Hallock and others fought to insert in the land-use agreement the last time the ski area expanded, in the mid-90s, which limited its operations to its then-boundary.

To add the issue’s complexity, there’s distrust among the communities surrounding Eldora about the ski area’s willingness to work with its neighbors. “The ski area decades ago was very open to Eldora town folks,” says local homeowner and MBCC member Dr. Payson Sheets, but the attitude “has been the opposite in the past few years.”

Sheets says the coalition “would be glad to talk with them if they are serious about open dialogue.” Hallock and Sheets both know that the reprieve is temporary, and a decision to grant an expansion could come at any moment.

Whether the two sides can reach a resolution that allows the ski area’s to improve its facilities, and in turn attract skiers and snowboarders, while also protecting the sensitive watershed and wildlife corridor below remains to be seen.

“This gives the sides a chance to see if they can align,” says Archuleta. “That’s what I’m hoping will happen.”