Spokane Journal of Business

Mt. Spokane ski expansion plan advances

Parks commission vote on long-proposed project is anticipated this spring

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Mt. Spokane ski expansion plan advances
-- Image provided by Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park

Mount Spokane 2000, the nonprofit group that manages the Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park, is one step closer in its long-planned efforts to expand the mountain's recreational skiing area to its northwest slope.

The nonprofit, also known as MS 2000, is proposing to enlarge its ski area by 279 acres, which is down from 400 acres the group originally proposed for the expansion back in 2006, says Brad McQuarrie, Mt. Spokane's general manager.

Though the proposed expansion has been reduced in scope, it still is being opposed by a group called the Save Mt. Spokane Coalition. The group is made up of members of several organizations, as well as individual citizens, who are concerned that the expansion would have far-reaching negative effects on the mountain's ecosystem and natural habitats.

Local environmental groups involved in the coalition include the Upper Columbia River Group of the Sierra Club, the Lands Council, Spokane Mountaineers, Conservation Northwest, and the Spokane Audubon Society, among others.

The Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park is a popular winter recreation spot here, providing about 380 seasonal jobs and attracting about 8,500 skiers each winter season, while generating overall revenue of about $3 million annually and McQuarrie says a sizable number of people support its expansion.

Last month, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission issued a determination of nonsignificance under the State Environmental Policy Act in response to the MS 2000 ski area expansion proposal, meaning that it found that the proposed action wouldn't have substantial adverse effects on the environment.

MS 2000's project proposal for the expansion says it seeks to construct a total of 82 acres of ski trails within that 279-acre area, with seven new trails and one new chairlift that would provide access to them.

McQuarrie says he anticipates the state parks commission will vote at a meeting in May to approve a land-use reclassification that's needed for the project to move forward. If it approves that change, MS 2000 hopes to have the new runs and chairlift open by the start of the 2012-2013 ski season, he says.

"It's all dependent on the approval process," he says. "It could be possible to have the lift open at the end of 2012, but it's a long process and we've been jumping through hoops for the last seven years."

If the plan is approved, McQuarrie says, Mt. Spokane plans to spend about $500,000 clearing ski runs and installing a chairlift. He says the ski and snowboard park likely would be able to purchase a used lift from another ski resort in the region. Throughout the planning stage of its proposal, including environmental surveys, Mt. Spokane so far has spent more than $320,000, he says.

The specific area in which MS 2000 is seeking to expand the ski area is being referred to as the Potential Alpine Ski Area Expansion (PASEA) and currently is classified as a natural forest area as part of Mount Spokane State Park, the almost 14,000-acre park that includes the ski and snowboard facilities. Through an agreement with the state's Parks and Recreation Commission, MS 2000 is allowed to operate its facilities in certain areas of the park that are designated as recreation or resource recreation, says Deb Wallace, the strategic and long-range planning manager for the commission who's working with MS 2000 to oversee the proposal process.

McQuarrie says that because the proposed expansion area is not in that land-use classification, the ski and snowboard park currently doesn't have permission to manage that area or patrol it. Some skiers and snowboarders often venture into that area, though, he says, because it's known for having the best snow conditions for expert-level enthusiasts.

"I personally have carried people who are injured and lost from that area," he says. "If we can formalize a trail system to get back there and manage it as it should be with trails and markings, we can keep people safe. We do a lot of search and rescue back there and send out our ski patrol, so I'm really looking forward to that safety piece."

McQuarrie adds that there are several other major advantages of expanding the ski area to that side of the mountain, one of which is that there's more snow accumulation on the north side. That could improve the resort's ski season in winters when there's less snow on the mountain's south-facing slope, where all of its ski and snowboard runs currently are located, he says.

"It's not necessarily keeping the ski area open longer," he says. "One of the drawbacks to Mt. Spokane is that on the south-facing slopes, in years where we receive less snow than average, we have less ski days than our competitors. The north-side terrain doesn't extend the season longer; it just reduces the lows of the bad years."

Another advantage to area skiers is the addition of more intermediate and expert level trails. Of the ski area's 45 current runs, 27 are classified under the black diamond designation, or expert levels.

He adds that another significant benefit of expanding the ski area is increased revenues for the state parks system, which is at risk of not receiving any general state funding during the next biennium.

Since the state parks commission last month released its findings of nonsignificance in accordance with the SEPA, Wallace says it's received more than 100 letters from the public, voicing both support and opposition of the expansion.

The main concern of the opposition group, Save Mt. Spokane Coalition, according to its website, is that the new ski runs will disrupt natural habitats for plants and animals through the fragmentation of the old-growth forest located on that side of the mountain.

Chris Bachman, a member of the coalition who's affiliated with the Sierra Club here, says, "Mainly our concerns are that this is an area of the mountain managed for many years as a de facto natural forest area. There is significant native forest growth that will be impacted by the ski area, and the (new proposal) does minimize that, but cutting ski runs and installing a chair lift will fragment the area and affect other types of winter recreation."

He says that the public land on that slope commonly is used for snowshoeing, back-country skiing, and—during the summer—for various types of recreation, such as hiking, berry picking, and bird watching.

The coalition also argues that the currently intact ecosystem there serves as a linkage corridor for wildlife travel between the Selkirk Mountain range that covers parts of Eastern Washington, North Idaho, British Columbia, and the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge south of Cheney. It says putting a ski area on that portion of the mountain will disrupt those natural wildlife migration patterns.

"You are talking about a habitat that can support rare species—wolverine, lynx, and wolves," Bachman says. "If you can support those types of animals, it's a healthy and vibrant ecosystem, but if you go and cut and fragment the area, you affect tree growth, watersheds, and the areas the animals use to go from one end of the environment to another."

The group's website includes copies of letters of opposition that have been sent to the state parks commission on behalf of both the Washington state Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Washington state Department of Natural Resources.

Jeff Lambert, another member of the coalition who also is a member of Spokane Mountaineers, says of the proposed expansion, "One of the key things is that once the damage is done, it's done. It's a pristine natural forest and once you cut trees and do the damage you can't go back to the way it was."

Adds Bachman, "It's been set aside as a state park for its uniqueness, and it's land deserving of preservation within the boundaries of a state park."

Wallace, of the state parks commission, says the commission is accepting public comments regarding its SEPA decision until March 21. She adds that in most situations, the public comment period for a SEPA decision is 14 days, but because there already has been much opposition to the proposed expansion, it has extended that public comment period to 35 days. An informational meeting and workshop regarding the proposal is set for March 16, at 6:30 p.m., in the Student Union Building at Spokane Falls Community College.

Mt. Spokane's McQuarrie says MS 2000 doesn't plan to develop runs in the area with the most mature natural forest habitat.

"Since 2003, when we submitted the master plan, we've pared the project down to meet the needs of a ski area minimally," he says. "The potential expansion area is 800 acres, and we're only developing 279 of that and moved it to the far southwest corner, which traditionally was developed in the past. We're staying away from the other half of the PASEA which is mature forest, so we're not developing any of that which is a concern for many people."

The portion of the PASEA that MS 2000 is seeking to develop formerly was the site of a chairlift, some ski runs, and lodge facilities in the first half of the 20th century, its proposal states.

Yet, the Save Mt. Spokane Coalition contends that there never was a chairlift in that area of the mountain, but that it had only a rope tow during the 1940s and '50s, Bachman says.

Mt. Spokane's McQuarrie says it's been a long process to finalize the expansion proposal from what originally was included in MS 2000's master plan for the ski park, which was completed in 2003 and also included a variety of other future expansion options for the park.

"In 2006, we went through an alternative process—we looked at no development to full-blown development of many new lifts, runs, lodges, and parking—and that stuck in people's heads," McQuarrie says. "We don't want that to happen I think people will be relieved when they see it. I'm proud of the product and I think it will meet the needs of the ski area in an environmentally sound way."

McQuarrie adds that he expects the commission to rule in favor of the lane-use reclassification at its May meeting.

"We are willing to meet people halfway as far as developing minimally to meet our needs, and we're not anticipating major opposition," he says. "The plan going forward is now mitigated, and it's a very small portion of the entire PASEA, which is a win-win and still allows for a significant amount of natural forest area."

Wallace says that if the commission approves the expansion, MS 2000 will be required to complete a supplemental environmental impact statement on the construction of the new ski runs and chairlift.

MS 2000 is comprised of a 15-member board of community volunteers that oversee the management and growth of the Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park.

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