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Groups fighting plan for Mount Spokane ski area

Environmentalists seek to preserve native forest

Environmentalists turned up the heat Wednesday in their legal challenge to the proposed expansion of the downhill ski area on Mount Spokane.

The Lands Council argued in an appeal before the Spokane County hearing examiner that the county violated its own law in issuing a permit to cut timber this year for new ski runs.

A coalition of Inland Northwest environmental groups wants to stop the ski area’s intrusion into the subalpine forest of the northwest flank of the mountain.

They argue that the area is the largest remaining native forest in Spokane County and that ski development would fragment habitat and harm wildlife.

Mike Peterson, executive director of the Lands Council, said the goal is to stop the expansion.

“You can’t mitigate the loss,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Lands Council, through attorney David Bricklin, argued before the county hearing examiner that a timber harvest permit was approved without a detailed plan for avoiding or mitigating environmental impacts as required under the county’s critical areas ordinance.

It is one of two appeals being brought by the Lands Council against expansion.

The Spokane nonprofit is also challenging a decision by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission in 2011 to reclassify 279 acres of the northwest flank from resource land to recreational use.

A Thurston County judge rejected that appeal, but the Lands Council took it to the Washington state Court of Appeals.

Peterson said that court has placed an injunction on the project pending the appeals.

Brad McQuarrie, general manager of Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, said the Lands Council has doggedly tried to stop the expansion, even at the cost of hiring lawyers and pursuing two appeals.

“This group just isn’t going to give up,” he said.

Mt. Spokane 2000, which operates the ski area, has been working on the expansion for about seven years. Details were made public in 2008. Mt. Spokane 2000’s board is headed by Jim Meyer, husband of Cowles Co. chairwoman Betsy Cowles. The Cowles Co. owns The Spokesman-Review.

McQuarrie said ski area proponents have scaled back their proposal from 850 acres to 279, 89 acres of which would require logging.

The plan calls for cutting timber while snow is on the ground to minimize disturbance to vegetation.

The plan also calls for keeping logs on the site for habitat. Other efforts to protect the environment include buffers around a wetland and protection of streams in the upper watershed of Blanchard Creek.

The idea is to expand downhill skiing terrain and provide north-facing runs that will hold snow into the early spring for late-season skiing.

“This special-interest group doesn’t want to give up and compromise,” McQuarrie said.

State parks, which are budget-strapped, stand to gain a minimum of $100,000 a year in additional lease revenue, he said.

The Lands Council and other groups, including Save Mt. Spokane, argue that the ski park would be better off making improvements to the existing ski area.

In its appeal of the timber permit, the Lands Council said the habitat management plan, which is required under county law, is inadequate because it fails to detail environmental impacts and steps to mitigate the impact.

Mark Wachtel, eastern region manager for priority habitat for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, testified before the hearing examiner that his agency has been asking for greater detail about protecting and mitigating environmental disruption, but he was unable to get those details in the project planning or the terms of the permit.

Wachtel said expansion proponents did not conduct a wildlife survey. “We should know what’s out there,” he said.

Hearing Examiner Mike Dempsey said he expects to release a written decision in about three weeks.