January 6, 2000 will mark the opening day of Vail’s long- awaited, and much debated, Blue Sky Basin. The 520-acre terrain-expansion project once referred to as Category Three adds nineteen percent more acreage to what is already North America’s largest resort.

The Blue Sky Basin area lies mainly on north-facing aspects directly adjacent to Vail’s open Back Bowls, and is serviced by a main lift called Skyline Express.

Under the guise of its new name, Blue Sky Basin seems far removed from the strongly opposed Category Three development that inspired environmental monkey wrenchers to light the place up in October of 1998, costing Vail insurance companies twelve million dollars in the name of lynx habitat. But, despite setbacks and legitimate environmental concerns, the expansion that was first proposed in 1994 is opening an entire year ahead of schedule.

Jimmy DeLong, owner of The Other Side snowboard shop in Beaver Creek, got a sneak preview of the terrain and snow conditions during a press trip earlier this week. “It’s not as steep as we’d like, but there are some short, steep pitches,” DeLong said. Steepness is on the top of every local’s list as concerned riders feared that Blue Sky Basin would be more of the same for Vail¿blue, all-to-tame terrain.

But DeLong and other folks in the know seem sure that Blue Sky Basin has something special to offer. The rolly open glades and intermediate-sized rock bands are a guaranteed departure from the valley status quo. The varied terrain, along with underdeveloped architecture also add to the vast, “discovery” feeling Vail was going for¿a sharp contrast to the rest of the mega resort.

But don’t expect quaint, do-it-yourself cooking grills and sparse architecture to last. On top of the endeavor of building back what was lost in the fires of ’98, and even after all the environmental controversy surrounding the Blue Sky project, Vail stumbled once again when workers illegally built a road through protected wetlands. An October 28 ruling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that ordered Vail to halt logging in the expansion area probably played a big part in the “underdeveloped” feeling of the new terrain.

Another 365 acres are planned to open in Blue Sky Basin next season; what other developments Vail plans are yet to be announced. See Vail’s Web site at vail.com for more information and pictures of the terrain expansion.Reporting live from my couch in Vail, this is Kurt Hoy.