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Mt. Spokane ski area will pursue expansion

THURSDAY, SEPT. 19, 2013

Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park is willing to do additional environmental studies in pursuit of a long-running effort to expand the ski hill, General Manager Brad McQuarrie said Wednesday.

“We will do whatever the state parks commission asks of us,” he said.

The resort’s proposal to build a chairlift and seven runs on Mount Spokane’s northwest face hit a setback this week, when an appeals court ruled that the Washington state Parks and Recreation Commission erred by not requiring an environmental impact statement before designating the land as suitable for recreation.

The 279 acres where the development would occur is one of the largest unbroken tracts of subalpine habitat left in Spokane County. Both the ski resort and its proposed expansion area are within the bounds of Mount Spokane State Park.

The Parks and Recreation Commission will discuss the state Court of Appeals ruling next Thursday during a regularly scheduled meeting in Chelan, said Virginia Painter, commission spokeswoman. But since it’s a legal matter, the discussion will probably happen behind closed doors in executive session, she said.

The planned expansion remains important for Mt. Spokane’s future as a ski hill, McQuarrie said.

The number of visitors to the ski resort continues to grow, he said. Developing runs on the mountain’s northwest side would help reduce skier densities, promote a longer season and diversify the resort’s terrain, McQuarrie said.

This week’s ruling by the Washington Court of Appeals addressed the timing of environmental studies. Commission members approved a recreation designation for the land targeted for resort expansion in May 2011, indicating that an EIS would be needed when Mt. Spokane submitted a detailed development proposal.

The Lands Council, a Spokane environmental group that opposes the ski resort’s development plans, challenged the commission’s action. The Lands Council argued that the EIS should have been done before the 279 acres was designated for recreational use. The appeals court agreed, saying decision-makers need to know the ecological consequences of development “before the project picks up momentum.”

McQuarrie said Mount Spokane’s north-facing terrain “holds snow really well” and provides some of the best skiing on the mountain.

People already venture into the mountain’s unmanaged northwest side because it’s easily accessible, McQuarrie said. “Some days, we’re making multiple trips back there to rescue lost and injured skiers.”

Mt. Spokane’s expansion plans are rooted in a state-commissioned study looking at what the ski resort needs to be successful. The resort scaled back earlier expansion plans to reduce the impact on forests and wetlands, McQuarrie said. The planning process has spanned about a decade, and it was open and transparent, he said.

“This is a small, nonprofit ski association. We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on studies,” he said. “From a businessman’s standpoint, it’s a tough process.”

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

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