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Now you’re schussing the NW Rockies – or not

The Inland Northwest’s five ski resorts have launched a new campaign: “Ski the Northwest Rockies.”

The term was coined by officials at the resorts, who felt “Inland Northwest” fell a little flat as a ski destination.

“When you say ‘Northwest Rockies’ it has a lot more resonance with people in Boston or Michigan who are looking for a place to ski,” said Tom Stebbins, administrator/marketing director for the Inland Northwest Ski Association, now doing business as Ski the Northwest Rockies.

The branding effort comes as the resorts are spending millions on real estate development and new chairlifts. But catchy as the phrase is, it begs the question: Are we really part of the Rockies – that soaring mountain range that graces so many Colorado postcards?

“Absolutely,” said John Eminger, owner of 49 Degrees North near Chewelah, Wash. “I know that we’re not part of the Cascades and I know that we’re not part of the Appalachians.”

In a long-ago geography class at Eastern Washington University, Eminger said, he recalled learning that “two little bumps that you pass by just west of Cheney are the foothills of Rockies.”

Just where the Rockies begin is a nebulous question. Geologists and geographers don’t agree on the boundaries of the range, whose youngest peaks are about 65 million years old. “If someone held a gun to my head, I’d be hard-pressed to say where it is,” said Tom Frost, research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Spokane.

Idaho’s Silver Mountain Ski Resort and Lookout Pass Ski Area are considered part of the Rockies, based on their proximity to the Bitterroot range. But the other three resorts are up for debate.

“I wouldn’t call anything in the Mount Spokane area part of the Rockies,” said Kirsten Peters, a geology instructor at Washington State University. “I wonder at their audacity … though I give them points for clever marketing. It makes it sound like we’ve got greater topographic relief – the steeper hills that skiers tend to want.”

According to Peters, Eastern Washington has ancient rock formations that were thrust up by the Rocky Mountains but aren’t part of the same range. If she were standing in downtown Sandpoint, Peters would classify mountains to the east as part of the Rockies, but not mountains to the west. “That’s my opinion,” she said.

Not so, said Harley Johansen, a University of Idaho geography professor who takes a broader view.

The Rockies “would be completely accurate for any ski area east of the Cascades,” he said. “As a general term, it should be able to capture the Selkirks, the Bitterrroots and the mountain ranges of central Idaho.”

Frost, at the U.S. Geological Survey, tends to agree.

“They’re sub-ranges in the Rockies,” said Frost, who says that Mount Spokane is similar enough geologically to the Rocky Mountains to be included. Forty-Nine Degrees North is probably on the edge, he said, though “I don’t think anyone would call your bluff if you’re a little bit wrong.”

Mike Folsom, the EWU geographer who taught the class that Eminger took, considers Mount Spokane and Schweitzer Mountain Resort part of the Rockies but questions whether 49 Degrees North has enough geologic resemblance to be considered a relation.

However, “if those nice folks at 49 Degrees North” want to use the name, Folsom said, he wouldn’t argue.

At the ski association, Stebbins said the focus was on inclusiveness. To quibblers, he’d describe Spokane as the “gateway to the Northwest Rockies.”

Over the past decade, the five resorts have seen ski visits nearly double to about 500,000 per season. To continue to grow, they’ll need to start reaching outside the Inland Northwest for visitors, Stebbins said.

The Northwest Rockies, with daily lift tickets in the $20 to $50 range, distinguishes local resorts from the Colorado Rockies, where $80 lift tickets are more the norm, he said.

“It describes where we live geographically,” Stebbins said. “Where does the Pacific Northwest end and the Rockies start? It means different things to different people.”


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