The Spokane County hearing examiner on Tuesday reversed a timber harvest permit the county issued to Mt. Spokane 2000 to cut old growth on the northwest side of the mountain as part of a planned ski area expansion.
Hearing Examiner Mike Dempsey ruled that the permit application failed to comply with the county’s own environmental laws regarding protection of wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat, and species conservation.
The acreage is the largest remaining old-growth forest in Spokane County and is used by moose, elk, bears, lynx, goshawks, pileated woodpeckers, wolverines and other animals. It is also the headwaters for several creeks draining the flank of the mountain.
The ski expansion would bring a new chairlift, requiring the disturbance of 80 acres for construction. That would be part of 279 acres that would be opened for skiing.
“We think this is a game changer,” said Mike Peterson, executive director of the Lands Council, which brought the appeal. “We think this is a good step to protect the old-growth forest on that northwest side.”
The Lands Council is part of a coalition of Inland Northwest environmental groups seeking to stop the expansion. Tuesday’s decision for them is one win in a much larger battle.
The Lands Council is also appealing a decision by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission in 2011 to reclassify the 279 acres from resource land to recreational use. A hearing on that appeal was held Tuesday before the Washington Court of Appeals in Olympia.
Peterson said the Lands Council has urged Mt. Spokane 2000 to consider upgrades on the other two-thirds of the mountain where downhill skiing already occurs and leave the undisturbed flank as it is.
He said the potential environmental losses cannot be replaced or minimized. “Some things are irreversible and you can’t really mitigate or compensate for them,” Peterson said.
Brad McQuarrie, general manager of Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, said the effort to expand the ski area will move ahead despite Tuesday’s ruling.
Mt. Spokane 2000, which operates the ski area on a lease from state parks, has been working on the expansion for about seven years.
McQuarrie said the permit rejected Tuesday sought timber cutting while snow is on the slopes to minimize damage to plants and soil.
He said the nonprofit organization is going to make a new timber harvest application, which will address issues raised in the appeal and seek to cut timber by hand after the snow has melted. The new plan is expected to outline methods for minimizing forest damage during the cutting.
Ski lift equipment for the planned new runs is being obtained from Bridger Bowl ski area in Montana next week, he said.
Mt. Spokane 2000’s board is headed by Jim Meyer, husband of Cowles Co. chairwoman Betsy Cowles. The Cowles Co. owns The Spokesman-Review.