September 24, 2010 in City

Lookout Pass Ski Area plans big expansion

Proposed makeover attempts to limit impact on environment
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Kathy Plonka photo

Phil Edholm, chief executive of Lookout Pass Ski Area, talks about expansion plans that would include 2,000 acres over two mountain peaks. He gave a tour of the proposed expansion site near the Idaho-Montana border on Wednesday.
(Full-size photo)

Lookout Pass Ski Area has submitted a $20 million expansion plan to the U.S. Forest Service that would more than quadruple its terrain over 20 years, adding eight new chairlifts, a second base area and encompassing two additional peaks.

Lookout is the smallest of the Inland Northwest’s five regional ski areas. If the plan comes to fruition, Lookout’s acreage would rival the other four: Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Sandpoint, Silver Mountain Resort in Kellogg, Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park and 49 Degrees North in Chewelah.

“There’s a need,” said Phil Edholm, chief executive of Lookout Pass. “People like affordable recreation and that’s what we offer here.”

The 20-year plan will be considered in phases, Edholm said. What the Forest Service will consider first is expansion with two new chairlifts to a second peak southwest of the existing base area and north of the St. Regis River, he said. Edholm anticipates paying for each phase of improvements with revenue from winter and summer operations.

The first improvements, however, are likely at least a few years away because Lookout operates on national forest land under a special use permit. Adding terrain and amenities are subject to intense environmental review that considers, for example, water quality and endangered species issues. In addition, because the ski area and proposed expansion span the state line, the evaluation will involve officials from both the Idaho Panhandle and Lolo national forests.

Edholm said he designed the expansion specifically to minimize ground disturbance near streams and would build new buildings to the principles laid out in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) specifications. He said he’d also like to use fuel cells to power additional lifts and buildings to minimize the need for more power lines.

“He has put a lot of thought into this and I applaud him for that,” said Sharon Sweeney, district ranger of the Superior Ranger District in Montana’s Lolo National Forest. “He came to the Forest Service with a well-thought-out plan. He thought of what some of the obstacles might be and he tried to reduce or eliminate them as much as possible.”

Poised atop the Montana/Idaho divide, Lookout currently offers 540 skiable acres, accessible via three chairlifts. The full 20-year expansion would add 2,000 more acres. Lookout’s peak elevation of 5,800 feet on Runt Mountain would increase to about 6,200 feet if two proposed new peaks were accessed. The vertical drop, from the top to the bottom of the longest run, is now about 1,150 feet. That would increase to about 1,800 feet. The expansion would add about 25 runs to the mountain’s existing 34.

The first phase, Edholm said, would increase the vertical drop to 1,500 feet and would add enticing north- and northeast-facing terrain.

The last time Lookout expanded, starting in 2003 with the addition of a second lift and continuing in 2007 with a third lift, annual skier visits more than doubled. Lookout’s 22,000 skier visits in 2003 jumped to about 63,000 in 2007, Edholm said.

Additional long-term plans include a second base area, complete with lodge, concessions and rental shop south of the St. Regis River and accessible by the old U. S. Highway 10. New summer amenities would include a mountain coaster and zip lines. New winter recreation would include a tubing hill and expanded cross country trails.

Lookout currently employs about 100 part-time workers in the winter and 35 in the summer. Edholm anticipates the expansion would at least double both numbers.

Edholm said he designed the expansion so as to not intrude into terrain farther up the St. Regis Basin that is used by snowmobilers and backcountry skiers.

Kent Wellner, recreation program manager for the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, said before any environmental review begins, he’d like to bring together the user groups that recreate in St. Regis Basin. Wellner said Edholm has taken the initiative to have preliminary conversations with those groups.

“He’s done a very good job at talking to some users and trying to establish a proposed plan that minimizes conflict,” Wellner said. “I just think we need to take the next step and engage a larger audience.”


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