After 15 years of meetings, proposals, appeals and enough red tape to harness a PistenBully, the latest plans for expanding the downhill ski area at Mount Spokane State Park are entering final stages for approval, maybe.
Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park wants to offer more intermediate ski runs to remain competitive with other ski areas in the region while reducing fire hazard.
Backcountry skiers and environmental groups say they like the “backside” areas of the mountain just the way they are.
Parks and Recreation commissioners and the public are reviewing a thick, new package of environmental documents and alternatives on two related issues:
• What land management classification should be assigned to an 800-acre area called the Potential Alpine Ski Expansion Area (PASEA)?
• Should the ski area be allowed to install a chairlift and create seven new ski trails within 279 acres of the PASEA?
Environmental groups were disturbed in August when the state combined both issues into one package released for review.
“We’ve always felt that how the land is classified is the first question to answer,” said Mike Petersen of The Lands Council. The Spokane-based group has led opposition to the expansion for five years and filed the 2012 lawsuit that required State Parks to complete an Environmental Impact Statement before classifying the land.
Most of Mount Spokane was classified in 1999 without an EIS, including 22 percent of the park protected as natural forest area.
Petersen says combining the issues may bias the decisions by giving the appearance that classifying the land to allow ski area expansion is a done deal.
A “natural forest area” designation, which The Lands Council favors, would nix the ski area expansion proposal and prohibit the installation of the chairlift the resort purchased two years ago when operators thought the expansion was going forward.
A “recreation” classification, preferred by the ski area, would allow installation of the lift and 79 acres of trails on a 279-acre footprint.
The manager of Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park says the proposal stages already have dragged on too long.
Brad McQuarrie says he’s glad both decisions are scheduled to be made at the November State Parks and Recreation Commission meeting in Spokane.
If the panel approves the proposals in favor of the ski area, he still must pursue Spokane County permits and would need luck to get trails ready for the 2015-16 season, much less the lift.
The process has been long and uphill for the downhill ski area.
In the mid-1990s, the facilities were in disrepair and locals were dissatisfied with grooming and customer service under the former Mt. Spokane Ski Corp. State Parks awarded the concession contract to Mount Spokane 2000, which formed the nonprofit Ski and Snowboard Park in 1998.
“We had a lot to do,” said McQuarrie, who came aboard in 2001. “We’ve made huge improvements.”
The new operators were assigned a 1,425-acre concession area within the 13,820-acre state park.
The 800 acres for possible ski area expansion were left unclassified for further review.
“We pay rent for the entire concession area,” McQuarrie said. “We have to insure it and we’re responsible for it whether we have developed ski runs or not.
“It’s difficult to have a third of the concession area not be manageable and still properly maintain it for skier enjoyment and safety as well as forest health. Fuels are loading up back there. Potential for a major fire is an unrecognized impact of not managing a forest.”
Despite the west exposure, McQuarrie believes the new runs would give skiers access to good “backside” snow when mountain conditions are otherwise poor.
The Lands Council says the ski area could achieve the same goal with less environmental impact by glading more ski runs on the north side accessible by existing Chair 4.
McQuarrie winnowed his proposals in several stages in 2006, 2010 and 2012 as plans were tweaked, eliminating lifts, facilities, trails and reducing wetland impacts.
“Our preferred Alternative 4 is a compromise,” McQuarrie said. “It does a lot for the ski area. And a lot of people don’t understand that it will be an enhancement to backcountry skiing, too.
“They’ll lose a little here, but gain a lot there as we clean up areas of the forest where you can’t hardly get through now.
“We’re ready to finally do something instead of talk about it.”
Contact Rich Landers by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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