Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park will be allowed to expand into pristine terrain on the mountain’s northwest face.
The Washington state Parks and Recreation Commission voted 4-0 Thursday to allow the controversial expansion to move forward, after hours of discussion about recreation desires versus the need to protect old-growth forest, meadows and wetlands at Mount Spokane, the state’s largest park.
“This allows the ski expansion, but tried to build in environmental controls by protecting the natural forest below the runs,” said Fred Olson, the commission’s chairman.
“Those who wanted to not allow skiing, they had some very good arguments,” he added. “It’s an incredible resource.”
The commission’s decision clears the way for the nonprofit ski area to expand into 279 acres of an 850-acre area recognized as one of the largest unbroken tracts of subalpine habitat left in Spokane County. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife opposed the expansion, along with environmental groups.
“This is the classic paradox for the commission, because they have a dual mission of providing recreation and protecting the resource for future generations,” said Virginia Painter, the commission’s spokeswoman.
About 200 community members attended a Wednesday night hearing, providing polite but passionate testimony on both sides of the issue.
Alpine ski advocates testified that it will give Mt. Spokane’s operators access to deeper snow on north-facing slopes, helping their hometown resort extend its season and compete with other ski areas in the region. The ski resort only occupies about 10 percent of Mount Spokane’s 14,000 acres, they noted.
Brad McQuarrie, the ski area’s general manager, said he was satisfied with the compromise. It will allow the ski resort’s operators to build a new chairlift and seven ski runs on the mountain’s northwest side. However, development would be less intensive than the existing parts of the ski resort.
A limited number of informal ski routes would be allowed through the treed islands between the runs. Clearing of trees, snags and brush would be allowed to provide safe travel routes, but preserved where possible to allow for ecological integrity.
“A lot of people are going back there already,” McQuarrie said. “It’s got the best low- to intermediate-skill terrain on the mountain.”
Safety is a concern in the undeveloped area because it is not regularly patrolled, McQuarrie said. The ski resort responds to lots of calls for lost or injured skiers.
Ski operators have spent nearly a decade on the proposal, working to craft a plan with broad support, he said.
McQuarrie said the permit work required for the expansion would begin immediately. He estimated that getting the permits and completing additional environmental reviews would take at least a year.
The ski area is operated by Mt. Spokane 2000, which would be required to pay for any improvements. The nonprofit board is headed by Jim Meyer, husband of Betsy Cowles, the chairwoman of Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review.
Members of “Save Mount Spokane Coalition,” which opposed the ski resort expansion, said they might appeal the commission’s decision.
The majority of Mount Spokane’s top is already developed for recreation, said Chris Bachman, a volunteer activist for The Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group. The commission should have protected the rest under a “natural forest” designation, he said.
“We still haven’t come to a point where we can say ‘no’ to unsustainable development in areas with irreplaceable natural values,” said Jeff Juel, forest policy director for The Lands Council.
In testimony opposing the expansion, Fish and Wildlife officials said the 850 acres provide important habitat for elk, moose and rare forest carnivores, including lynx and wolverines. Boreal owls and Northern goshawk are found on the site. The old-growth habitat also provides important travel corridors for migrating wildlife, officials said.
“This area is so rare, that it’s a great loss to the environment,” said John Roskelly, a Save Mount Spokane Coalition member. “For it to be fragmented, clear-cut and abused is a travesty for Spokane County.”