September 18, 2013 in Idaho

Ski expansion at standstill

Appeals court calls for environmental study of Mt. Spokane’s chairlift plan
By The Spokesman-Review
 

A state appeals court has halted a major expansion at Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, saying that the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission erred by not requiring a detailed study of how a new chairlift and runs would impact old-growth forest, meadows and wetlands.

Tuesday’s ruling was hailed by The Lands Council, which appealed an earlier court ruling on the issue. The Spokane-based environmental group opposes the nonprofit ski area’s expansion into 279 acres on the mountain’s northwest face, which is recognized as having one of the largest unbroken tracts of subalpine habitat left in Spokane County.

“It’s a major decision to turn what was a de facto natural area into a ski area expansion in a state park,” said Mike Petersen, The Lands Council’s executive director.

Preparing the environmental impact statement required by the Washington Court of Appeals will take at least two years, Petersen predicted.

“This really sets them back,” he said. “We think it just might put an end to it.”

Officials from the state Parks and Recreation Commission were not available for comment Tuesday afternoon. In a 2011 interview, however, a commission spokeswoman described the ski resort expansion as “the classic paradox” for the commission, which has a dual mission of providing recreation and protecting the resource for future generations.

Brad McQuarrie, Mt. Spokane’s general manager, had not read the ruling but said the resort’s expansion has been on hold, pending the court’s decision.

Mount Spokane State Park encompasses about 14,000 acres. The ski resort has leased about 2,300 acres from the state since the 1950s, including the 1,450-acre alpine ski resort.

Five years ago, Mt. Spokane submitted plans for developing the remaining 850 acres. The resort later pared down its plans, intending to develop 279 acres and leave the remaining acreage in a natural state.

Mt. Spokane’s expansion plan calls for a new chairlift and seven ski runs on the mountain’s northwest side. Proponents say it would give Mt. Spokane’s operators access to deeper snows on the north-facing slopes, helping the resort extend its season and compete with other ski resorts in the region.

The ski area is operated by Mt. Spokane 2000, which would be required to pay for any improvements. Mt. Spokane 2000 is headed by Jim Meyer, the husband of Betsy Cowles, who is chairwoman of the company that owns The Spokesman-Review.

In May 2011, the Parks and Recreation commission voted to give the 279 acres a land-use designation compatible with recreation, allowing the expansion effort to progress. However, the ski resort was required to prepare an environmental impact statement when it submitted a detailed development proposal.

The Lands Council challenged the commission’s decision, saying an environmental impact statement was required before the commission approved the ski area expansion.

The Washington State Court of Appeals agreed. Tuesday’s ruling said that state law requires decision-makers to “be apprised of the environmental consequences before the project picks up momentum, not after.”

The ruling also cited the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s concerns about the ski area expansion. Department officials said the old-growth area provides important habitat for elk, moose and rare forest carnivores, including lynx and wolverines.

The Lands Council also wants Mt. Spokane to thrive, Petersen said. But he thinks that resort operators could improve Mt. Spokane’s draw through investments in the existing operation, such as renovating the lodge, installing faster chair lifts and developing new runs.

“It’s close to Spokane and it’s a great family area,” he said of the ski hill.

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