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Skiers getting off the Silver Queen high-speed lift last winter were greeted by a sign saying "The Last Great Colorado Ski Town."

Opponents of the growth sweeping western Colorado say that if plans to build Crested Butte North go through, the town will be just another Aspen or Vail.The resort management says that without the expansion to neighboring Snodgrass Mountain, it could become Aspen or Vail without a ski area.

The resort's paid skier days have declined 13 percent over the past five years, said resort President Edward Callaway. "We're living on fumes."

Some skiers took advantage of the jet service Crested Butte has lured to Gunnison to get to Telluride.

Dana Kirby, manager of Gene Taylor's Sporting Goods, said, "We are off big time this season. . . . Looking at the last five years, 1992 seemed to be a peak. This is one of the poorest years for us."

Opponents say expansion is not the answer.

Vicki Shaw, interim director of the High Country Citizens Alliance, says, "I would like to see improvements on the main moun-tain" before any expansion is considered. The group, formed in 1978 to oppose a plan for a molybdenum mine near here, is leading resistance to the expansion.

The group has proposed alternatives to the expansion, including building a sports complex and emphasizing other winter sports.

Chuck Shaw, her husband, said the expansion is part of the "headlong competition that is leading them (the ski industry) to price themselves out of business."

At the heart of the resistance to the expansion is the fear that it will become "a huge draw for more development," Shaw added.

The expansion on the nearby Snodgrass Mountain is one of six Colorado ski projects now before the Forest Service as resorts battle for a market that keeps contracting as more baby boomers drop out of skiing.

Crested Butte even faces competition for its niche in the extreme skiing market.

The Aspen Skiing Co. is considering opening more extreme terrain at Highlands, putting a chairlift in an area called Deep Steeplechase. It has drawn some opposition from relatives and friends of three ski patrollers killed there in 1984. The company believes avalanche-control technology has improved enough to make it safe.

Loveland may have happened on the easiest way to open a new run: an avalanche. It crushed a couple of unoccupied cars, including one owned by a ski patroller, clearing a path through trees. Now it has to be skied to prevent further avalanches.

Eldora is fighting not only to expand terrain but against a Boulder County attempt to limit its skier days. The area is suing the county because the limit could force the area to close by mid-February in years to come, said General Manager Tom Spangler.

Steamboat has tentative approval for an additional 950 acres, nearly a 40 percent increase. Telluride likewise has approval to nearly double its terrain to 1,900 areas.

Vail, already North America's largest single-mountain ski area, wants to add an additional 1,000 acres of back-bowl skiing. The Forest Service is scheduled to rule on the $12-million project this summer.

The resort already has approval for a newer, faster gondola and a new base area at Golden Peak. Both projects will be completed for the next ski season.

Telluride, Vail and Steamboat ultimately had the support of their local communities. No proposal has met the resistance voiced here.

Callaway already has called off plans to start construction of a $9-million hotel and convention center this summer.

Jeff Burch, the Forest Service official reviewing the Telluride and Crested Butte proposals, said the latter is more complicated because it involves "moving to a new mountain."

Burch added, "The impacts of growth are more apparent," in Crested Butte.

The vehemence of the resistance makes it unlikely a decision will be made this year. Forest Service policy is to try to get consensus before approving projects. It could approve the existing proposal or require substantial changes.

The real issue in Crested Butte is the new base village the resort plans.

Chuck Shaw says there already are 5,000-plus housing units approved for construction in the upper East River Valley, an area with a present full-time population of 2,862.

Crested Butte North would have 1,100 multi-family condominium units, 500 hotel rooms, 100 single-family home sites and 220,000 square feet of commercial space. Its size - it would double existing residential development in the immediate area - alarms critics.

Callaway says the $40-million project would be built over 20 years.

"People think with Snodgrass we're going to be big, but we're still going to be small. We want to be small, just not crippled.

"Even with Snodgrass, we will be half the size of other major Colorado destination resorts. We will forever be the alternative. That's our niche. A little smaller, a little friendlier, a little more out of the way but worth it."

It's not the first time Crested Butte has been faced with a crisis. In the mid-1980s it appeared headed for closure. The hill had only 450 acres to offer, and it was losing $2 million a year.

The resort, a good five-hour drive from Denver, pioneered subsidized air service.

Staff convinced Callaway to add 400 acres of extreme terrain, and suddenly Crested Butte had the marketing gimmick it needed. By the 1988-89 season it was making money.

Crested Butte got even more publicity, some would say notoriety, by offering free skiing from opening day to Christmas. This year free spring skiing was added, and the slopes were jammed.

Now the resort, battling a decline in paying customers, is considering revamping the free skiing by tying it to lodging or some other system.

Mountain managers say their main problem now is a lack of intermediate terrain. Crested Butte's reputation for extreme terrain has stuck all too well.

Roark Kiklevich, assistant mountain manager, says many of the skiers who come to Crested Butte ski only 10 days a year and can't handle most of its terrain. Nearly 60 percent is advanced or expert. The resort winches machines up some of its black diamond runs to groom them and give skiers a break.

Crested Butte North would add 193 acres of intermediate terrain to the existing 340. The new area would include a total of 450 acres, served by 11 lifts.

Jerry Jones, a ski consultant and former president of Vail Associates, as well as present owner of Silvercreek, says even expanding Crested Butte "does not mean they are going to get more skiers. The U.S. ski industry continues to hover around 54 miller skier visits. I think you have to consider it flat."

He added, "They might be able to get a little more money per skier but that's not guaranteed either."

Jones added, however, "They better be competitive or they are going to be a Third World ski resort."