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Proposed ski area expansion has plenty of opponents

Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park could get a definitive answer this spring on a long-standing effort to expand operations into pristine terrain on the mountain.

The ski area wants to build a new chairlift and seven ski runs on the undeveloped west/northwest side of Mount Spokane State Park, which contains old-growth forests, alpine meadows and wetlands. Operators of the nonprofit ski area say the expansion would help them compete with private resorts in the region, allowing Mt. Spokane to extend its season by giving skiers access to deeper snow on north-facing slopes.

“It’s got the best snow on the mountain and it’s awesome terrain,” said Brad McQuarrie, the ski area’s general manager.

But the expansion effort is opposed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and conservation groups. They say the ski runs would venture into irreplaceable old-growth stands and meadows that provide critical wildlife corridors.

Jeff Lambert, past president of the Spokane Mountaineers, said surveys show the proposed runs cutting through timbered groves. “The old-growth trees will be clear-cut, meadows grubbed out and … covered with ski runs,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission will hold a workshop in Spokane on the issue. The new chairlift and runs are proposed for 279 acres within an 800-acre area of parkland that doesn’t have a formal land-use classification.

Under several types of “recreation” classifications, the ski area expansion could move forward, said Deb Wallace, a planner for the Parks and Recreation Commission. However, a designation of “natural forest preserve” or other habitat designations would prevent the new lift and runs from being built, she said. Commission members are expected to decide on a classification during a May 19 meeting in Spokane.

McQuarrie has worked on the proposed expansion since 2003, when he joined Mt. Spokane as the operations manager. The snowpack was so poor that season that he trucked in snow from the mountain’s undeveloped backside.

“I thought, this is where the resort should be,” McQuarrie said.

To address habitat concerns, the ski area has reduced the footprint of the new runs from 400 acres to 279 acres, he said.

“We’ve worked for nine years now with all kinds of groups,” McQuarrie said. “It’s been extensively studied.”

The expansion would allow the ski area to accommodate 800 more skiers and snowboarders per day, he said. Public safety is also an issue, according to McQuarrie. Backcountry skiers already use Mount Spokane’s undeveloped side, even though it isn’t patrolled.

“We end up responding to lots of calls for injured and lost skiers,” he said.

The ski area is operated by Mt. Spokane 2000, which would pay for any improvements. The nonprofit board is headed by Jim Meyer, husband of Betsy Cowles, the chairman of Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Cowles family donated part of the 800 acres to the state park system. “The land was given for skiing and recreation,” Meyer said. “It wasn’t intended as a nature preserve.”

After operators learn whether the expansion will be allowed, McQuarrie said the ski area will start work on a master facilities plan. Mt. Spokane wants to replace one of the park’s aging lodgings, remodel another and upgrade existing terrain. Future plans could include a snowmaking machine.

The ski park’s plans to expand into undeveloped terrain are opposed by the Save Mount Spokane Coalition, an alliance that includes the Spokane Mountaineers, Conservation Northwest, The Lands Council, and local chapters of the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the Native Plant Society.

Coalition members support upgrades to the existing facilities but oppose the new lift and runs, said Mike Petersen, The Lands Council’s executive director. “Most of us have skied up there for years. We’d like to see it thrive,” he said.

Several surveys have documented the value of Mount Spokane’s remaining habitat. The state’s Natural Heritage Program said the 800 acres is part of the largest intact subalpine forest left in Spokane County and that it provides a critical wildlife migration corridor. Expanding the ski area would harm moose and elk calving grounds and den sites for black bears, according to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists.

More than 200 native plants were documented on Mount Spokane’s west/northwest side, which also provides habitat for pileated woodpeckers, rare lynx and wolverines, and pikas, a rabbit-like rodent that lives at high elevations.

“There are lots of little springs and big trees. It’s very wild, very natural,” Petersen said.

Two-thirds of Mount Spokane is already developed for skiing, said John Roskelley, a member of Save Mount Spokane Coalition.

“There aren’t many areas in Eastern Washington that are as high as 5,800 feet that have not been logged or damaged, so this area is unique,” he said.