Mount Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park closed for business on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 8 and hasn’t been open since. Officially, operations are suspended, pending a radical change in our persistently frustrating weather pattern. If the game is indeed over, the 2014-15 season at Mount Spokane will be the second-shortest season on record. A similar winter in 2005 shut down the mountain on January 17.
“If this happens once every 10 years I can live with that,” said Brad McQuarrie, general manager of the ski area. “In that case we won’t have another tough one until 2024-25.”
Of course, no snow means no customers. But the revenue shortfall inflicted on the ski area by winter’s absence won’t impact the progress of terrain expansion approved by the Washington State Parks Commission last fall.
“We’re already budgeted for it,” McQuarrie said. “We’re a small operation, so the effects of a bad winter aren’t nearly as impactful as they would be for a destination resort. We have the funding and we’re moving ahead.”
I was assuming that suspension of ski area operations would allow McQuarrie to get a jump on the project. But several hurdles remain to be cleared in the process, which has been drawn out for more than 10 years by clashes between competing interests.
One of the conditions for the commission’s approval of the project is that no work can be done during the northern goshawk breeding and nesting season, from March 1 through July 31.
“We lost the best part of the year,” McQuarrie said. “It gets pretty hot and the fire danger is severe in August. Snow could come in late September. By the 20th we’re trying to wrap up higher elevation projects. In most years we can work until the first of November, but you have to plan for not being able to do that.”
McQuarrie said that by imposing such a narrow work window, the commission is making the expansion a multi-year project. He suggested that by drawing out any potential disruptions involved with construction, the restrictions could increase, rather than lessen, the impact on wildlife. Therefore, he has asked the commission for variances that would allow some prep work to begin before the breeding and nesting period ends.
“We just want to get it going as soon as we can,” he said. “We’re prepared to do whatever we can possibly do to relieve people’s concerns about the goshawk habitat.”
One of the things McQuarrie is asking for is clearance for a “beeline cut,” which is a narrow path that clears a line of sight to survey down the lift line. A survey would allow engineers to specify the exact location and elevation of the towers. He has made a proposal to the commission for having a wildlife biologist on site with the survey crew to minimize the potential for habitat disruption.
The chairlift was purchased in the fall of 2013 after being retired from Bridger Bowl near Bozeman, Montana. It has been lying in pieces in McQuarrie’s pasture, pending installation. A completed survey would allow engineers to cut the towers to exact length and design their footings.
McQuarrie hopes construction of the top terminal will be allowed to proceed, as well as installation of power, which would be brought over from the top of chair one. When restrictions are lifted on August 1, the lift line could be cut and tower foundations installed. McQuarrie would like to move them onto the hill and lay them on the ground next to their foundations as soon as there is protective snow cover.
“We would really like to get those runs cut,” he said. “We could groom next year and have a snow host or ski patrol at the top and the bottom showing people how to get over to chair four. That’s the ideal situation, but probably not the actual sequence of events.”
At this rate, it could be a few more seasons down the road before the new lift is turning. Meantime, McQuarrie is holding out hope that this season isn’t over yet. Several feet of snow have been known to fall this time of year.
“We’re still primed for it,” he said. “We’ve been working to close down certain parts of the mountain with an eye on opening chairs two three and five.
“We’d love to have one more party, throw a barbecue, make a few more turns and have a chance to say goodbye to everybody.”
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