The Washington Parks and Recreation Commission voted Thursday to allow an expansion of downhill skiing at Mount Spokane State Park. Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard plans to build a new chairlift and carve seven new runs on the mountain’s northwest face.
The 5-2 commission vote followed 3 1/2 hours of passionate testimony Wednesday night from skiers, snowmobilers and ski patrol members who support expanding the terrain at the nonprofit ski resort.
Others opposed expansion, saying they valued the tranquillity and natural beauty of the mountain’s undeveloped backside.
The issue has been divisive. The new runs will affect the appearance of the beloved mountain in Spokane’s backyard and extend into the largest, unbroken tract of subalpine habitat remaining in Spokane County.
Mt. Spokane officials said the expansion will help the resort bring in new revenue, so it can continue to provide affordable, family-friendly skiing opportunities for local residents. The resort needs the deeper snow and terrain to expand runs for intermediate-level skiers on Mount Spokane’s backside, they said.
Safety is also an issue, according to resort officials. The ski patrol responds to backcountry skiing emergencies in that area, which has lots of downed trees. Last season, it took four hours to evacuate a backcountry skier who punctured a lung when he crashed into a tree, according to a ski patrol member.
Opponents, including the Spokane Tribe and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the expansion would disturb 279 acres of pristine mountain habitat.
“It’s a damn tough decision,” said Mark Brown, a parks commissioner from Lacey.
The state Parks and Recreation Commission has a dual mission of preserving natural resources and providing outdoor recreation opportunities.
In voting for the expansion, Brown and other commissioners pointed to the long history of downhill skiing on Mount Spokane.
“The mountain has been an active use playground for the people of Spokane for decades,” Brown said.
Construction of the first ski facilities at Mount Spokane began in the 1930s. By the 1950s, a ski lodge, ski runs and a restaurant were located just south of the expansion area. The lodge burned to the ground a few years later.
Mount Spokane 2000, the nonprofit that runs the ski resort, is the largest concessionaire in the state parks system, Brown noted.
“It’s absolutely OK for us to want them to succeed,” he said.
Lucinda Whaley, a Spokane resident who chairs the commission, was among the five members voting for the expansion. The two dissenting votes came from Patricia Lantz, of Gig Harbor, and Ken Bounds, of Seattle, who said the mountain’s natural values should be protected.
The undisturbed area provides habitat for elk and rare animals, such as goshawks and lynx. The Spokane Tribe has a creation story tied to Mount Spokane, and the mountain was used for special ceremonies and initiation rites.
“The land is telling me what to do,” Lantz said. “This is worth preserving for all time for all Washingtonians.”
But she joined other commissioners in praising the mitigation plan put together by agency staff, which requires the resort to leave large islands of trees between the runs. Only about 74 acres of land will be cleared.
The ski runs’ footprint was shrunk to disturb fewer acres, and some of the runs were rerouted to avoid wetlands and large trees.
The resort will be required to monitor for erosion and invasive plant species in the ski expansion area.
The state’s mitigation plan also calls for purchasing additional parkland to help offset the lost wildlife habitat.
“We’re excited about making these improvements to the mountain,” Brad McQuarrie, Mt. Spokane ski resort’s general manager, said after the vote. “It was a huge compromise.”
The resort doesn’t have a timeline for developing the new runs, he said. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
It would take 18 to 24 months to develop the new runs, depending on the permitting process, said Jim Meyer, president of Mount Spokane 2000. Some of the improvements will be paid for out of the resort’s operating revenue. A community fundraising effort is also a likelihood, he said.
Meyer is the husband of Betsy Cowles, chairwoman of Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review.
Expanding the ski area has been discussed since the late 1990s. The commission approved the expansion in 2011, but the action was overturned by a state appeals court, which ruled that additional environmental studies were needed.
“It’s been a long process, very transparent to the public,” Meyer said. “I think we achieved the balance” between expanding opportunities for skiers and protecting the mountain’s natural attributes.
Approval of the expansion disappointed Mike Petersen, executive director of The Lands Council. The Spokane-based environmental group will consider its options as the ski development’s permitting process gets underway, he said.
Some of the trees in the path of the runs are 150 years old, Petersen said.
“This is the last old-growth of any size in Spokane County,” he said. “We feel we’re on the side of the right. We’re not giving up.”
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