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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Mt. Spokane may have dedicated uphill route, some still irked

UPDATED: Sun., Dec. 13, 2020

A skier descends from the summit of Mount Spokane on Dec. 2.  (Eli Francovich)
A skier descends from the summit of Mount Spokane on Dec. 2. (Eli Francovich)

Spokane’s hometown ski resort may have a dedicated all-day uphill ski route as early as next year.

That was the news from a virtual meeting held Thursday between advocates of uphill skiing and the general manager for Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park.

The dedicated uphill routes is not a sure thing, said Jim Van Löben Sels, general manager for the park, and depends on approval from the resort’s lawyers.

“I will say, there are some great examples of uphill policies in place right now in other ski resorts,” he said in an interview Friday. “We can do this.”

The meeting was held after the resort, which operates on Washington State Park land, shortened the time skiers are allowed to ski up and instituted a $50 season pass. Those changes irked uphill skiers. Uphill skiers use specialized nylon material – known as skins – that grip the snow to ski up.

Once they reach the top, they take the skins off and go down. Unlike backcountry skiing, uphill skiing is done in a resort or an otherwise controlled and relatively safe environment.

“It seemed like people walked away seeing a path toward a better future,” said Landon Crecelius, the organizer of Thursday’s meeting. “Not a perfect one.”

Others who attended the meeting were less optimistic.

“I feel like if they were really forthright or really honest they would have initiated a process first and then taken the information and come up with a plan and proposal,” said Greg Gordon, an environmental studies professor at Gonzaga University who attended the virtual meeting.

Gordon described the meeting as frustrating. While he likes the idea of an all-day uphill policy, he said it doesn’t address his underlying concerns, namely that the resort is asking people to pay to use public land during nonoperating hours.

“I think limiting access when they’re nonoperational is still an issue,” he said. “And the $50 per person rather than per car seems exorbitant.”

The changes were necessary, Van Löben Sels said, to make the resort’s policy consistent, improve safety and charge users for a service, namely grooming and parking.

“All of our users are paying users,” he said. It was a very inconsistent gap in our policy and needed to be reviewed.

“I’m trying to find solutions that broaden our participation with that user group and be strategic and long term with them and not just shut it down.”

An issue with some history

This year’s uphill skiing policy change is just the latest in a series of gripes that some uphill skiers and other nonmotorized winter recreationists have with how Washington State Parks manages Mount Spokane and the ski resort concession in particular.

“I always feel like I’m reacting to stuff instead of having a chance to offer input ahead of time,” said Holly Weiler, a longtime advocate for Mount Spokane and volunteer with the Friends of Mount Spokane State Park group. “Over the years, I’ve watched the ways public access for state park users has been eroded by policies and decisions that favored the ski concession instead.”

Weiler points to the ski resort expansion, a contentious and long fought move, which ultimately led to the resort adding about 300 acres to its northern slope.

“Not only did that ruin some of the best backcountry skiing that exists on the mountain, at the same time it also basically destroyed the upper portion of Trail 140, impacting the viewshed year-round and making snowshoe access in the winter off-limits,” she said.

Adding to the list of grievances, Mount Spokane State Park shifted its opening time in 2019 from 6:30 to 7 a.m. which cut into early morning uphill ski time.

Public land?

More broadly, many wonder how public land access can be so easily restricted.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow when I remember that it is state park land,” commented one skier on Facebook. “We should all be able to easily access and enjoy.”

There is a long history of skiing, and controversy, on the mountain. The first rope tow was built in 1936, according to historian Cris Currie, who wrote the book “Spokane’s History of Skiing.” In 1948, the newly reorganized Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission gave permission to the Selkirk Ski Club to “maintain and operate ski tows” on public land.

“Little did they realize the extent of the controversy that was soon to develop over the private use of public land,” Currie wrote.

In 1975, the Mt. Spokane Skiing Corporation signed a concession agreement with Washington State Parks that expired in 1995.

Toward the end of its agreement, the private corporation cut prices (“Cheap Tickets R Us” was one slogan from that time) and, according to critics, didn’t invest enough back into the mountain.

So, as the concession agreement neared its expiration date, 65 Spokane business and civic leaders started lobbying for a new entity to take over. Eventually, they formed the nonprofit MS 2000. Since 1997, the concession has been run by that group.

“I shouldn’t have to pay for it because it’s state land. Well, technically that’s not accurate,” said Cindy Whaley, a Washington State Parks and Recreation commissioner from Spokane. “The concessionaire has exclusive use of that property throughout the concession.”

Per the 1997 agreement, the resort has “exclusive right within the concession area” to run a recreational alpine ski area and charge fees “for services in connection with the concession operations.”

In exchange, the resort agreed to pay the state $20,000 a year plus an additional percentage based on gross income. In 2004, however, following a particularly bad snow year, the agreement was amended and the resort agreed to pay a percentage of its gross annual revenue, dropping the $20,000 base rent. The original agreement has been amended several times since 1997.

Although originally set to expire in 2017, the concession is now set to end in 2038.

“If you want a ski resort in a state park you have to have a concession agreement,” Whaley said.

This is a common arrangement and grew out of public land grazing and mining concessions, said Michael Childers, a professor of history at Colorado State and author of the book “Colorado Powder Keg: Ski Resorts and the Environmental Movement.”

“They provide these services for recreational use, or use in general, that the government is just unable to,” Childers said.

There are roughly 120 ski resorts on forest service land, each operating under some sort of concession agreement, he said.

While Mount Spokane is a state park, the underlying mechanism is the same.

While that may be the case, Weiler believes that because the land is state park land, the concession should be run differently than those on forest service land. After all, she said, the agencies have different missions. Furthermore, because Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Resort is a nonprofit organization, she believes they should be held to a higher level of transparency.

“As a nonprofit, my expectation is they are not driven by profits – they are driven by how they are building community,” Weiler said. “In my opinion, they’re acting like a private resort.”

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