Bill Jennings column: Mount Spokane expansion in a new phase of debate

General manager Brad McQuarrie stands before a semi-open glade he and supporters would like to open through expansion. (Jesse Tinsley)
General manager Brad McQuarrie stands before a semi-open glade he and supporters would like to open through expansion. (Jesse Tinsley)

For more than a decade, Mount Spokane has been trying to expand its terrain. General manager Brad McQuarrie and Mount Spokane 2000, the non-profit running the ski hill, have been working with the Washington State Parks Commission to create a viable expansion plan.

If things had gone according to plan, 279 acres of new lift-served terrain on Mount Spokane’s northwest aspect would have been one of the biggest stories heading into next season. The expansion proposal was approved in May of 2011. A classic Riblet double chair lift was purchased from Bridger Bowl last fall.

The commission classified the proposed expansion area “recreational” in 2011, giving Mount Spokane 2000 a green light to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the project. The Lands Council, a local environmental interest group, appealed the approval, arguing that an EIS should have been required before the commission classified the land. The initial appeal was dismissed in May 2012. A subsequent appeal was granted by Superior Court last September, bringing the expansion project to a halt.

McQuarrie is in the process of addressing “procedural errors,” cited by the court.

“We’re rewriting the project action for classification, which is the chairlift and the timber harvest to clear the runs,” he said. “That’s going to go before the commission in November. By November we’ll have the land reclassified and we’ll immediately file with Spokane County for a timber harvest permit and building permits.”

The Lands Council says installing a new lift will destroy old growth forest. Mt. Spokane 2000 disagrees. To sell its case for blocking the project, The Lands Council is promoting its own set of alternatives called “Mount Spokane 2020.”

“We all ski up there and we want the area to thrive,” said Mike Petersen, Executive Director of The Lands Council.

Petersen produced Mount Spokane 2020 with input from the Spokane Mountaineers, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. It focuses on the ski area’s existing footprint: a new lodge, a new chairlift south of chair one, replacing chair two with a high speed quad, and more glades in the furthest north and south in-bounds areas.

McQuarrie said the proposal fails to address key problems expansion will help solve, such as providing intermediate terrain elsewhere that helps reduce traffic on the cat track exiting Northwest Passage. A quad on Two Face, moving twice as many people, twice as fast, could overwhelm that route. He said the area south of chair one would be better served by simply investing in the existing chair to make it more efficient.

“It also didn’t address many of issues about the backside in general,” McQuarrie said. “Things like the accumulating fuel load that is making it increasingly more difficult and dangerous. A lot of the backcountry people agree with The Lands Council and want it to stay the same. But if you just let it sit there and overgrow it’s not going to be the same a few years from now.”

Petersen said The Lands Council isn’t totally opposed to cleaning up the backside, as long as clean up is minimally invasive and protects old growth. “I’d be interested in what you could do in those areas that we could all embrace,” he said.

Peterson didn’t sound so conciliatory last fall when a state appeals court blocked the expansion. “This really sets them back,” he told The Spokesman-Review. “We think it just might put an end to it.”

The parks commission will meet in Spokane this November to review the land classification based on the revised EIS.

Will the outcome set the project in motion again, or put an end to it? Both sides are determined not to quit until they win.

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Rich Landers

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