Welcome to the first round of Out There Monthly’s new “Locking Horns” department. Here we will be giving passionate advocates for different approaches to various recreation and natural resource issues a chance to go head-to-head with words meant to inform and persuade Inland Northwest outdoor enthusiasts. This first Locking Horns segment is dedicated to the proposed ski area expansion on Mount Spokane. Read two opposing positions on the issue below, and then visit the State Parks website to do more research for yourself and/or to submit your comments on the project and the scope of the planned Environmental Impact Statement (by December 12). Then take the debate to Facebook to share your own opinion.
Locking Horns: Should Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park be expanded with a new lift and runs on the backside of Mount Spokane?
By Brad McQuarrie, General Manager, Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park
When Spokane’s most accessible, affordable winter recreation destination opened this week, skiers and boarders were excited to find new lodge and mountain improvements made this summer as part of a long-term plan to better serve a growing population of outdoor enthusiasts. They’re also eager to know the latest status of Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park’s expansion, which will introduce almost 80 acres of groomed trails, seven new runs and a chair lift within a 279-acre portion of the 850-acre area designated for potential alpine expansion.
After nearly a decade of working with the Spokane community and regulatory agencies to create a plan that balances recreation and stewardship priorities, we are eager to move forward with this significant improvement in the ski area’s offerings.
Mt. Spokane 2000 (MS 2000), the non-profit organization that manages Mt. Spokane, has made a great deal of progress, earning expansion approval in 2011 as a result of extensive planning, studies and public process that involved the support, participation and collaboration of numerous public agencies and organizations. This included completion of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Yet a local special-interest environmental group is working to stop the expansion by creating hurdles for the landowner, Washington State Parks. There are two key issues being addressed: land classification and approval of Mt. Spokane’s revised proposal for expansion.
Land Classification Balances Recreation while Conserving Natural Forests
The Classification and Management Planning (CAMP) process began at Mt. Spokane State Park in the 1990’s to determine future development. In 1999, Washington State Parks classified all the land in the park except the 850 acres designated as the Potential Alpine Expansion Area (PASEA). The decision secured more than one third of the 13,919-acre Park as Natural Forest Area (NFA) or Natural Area Preserve (NAP) for the purpose of protecting natural plant and animal communities. This set aside many desired natural areas, such as Ragged Ridge, for preservation.
It is now time to classify the land in the 850-acre expansion area. MS 2000’s proposal calls for the use of 279 acres of the expansion area to address the lack of intermediate skiing opportunities within the existing ski area, leaving the remaining 570 acres free of developed ski trails. Yet, opponents want the entire 850-acre expansion area to be classified as NFA. Most of this area is already heavily used for both winter and summer recreation, and it has been developed with dirt and paved roads and buildings. NFA classification would not allow for present and future use by downhill skiers, mountain bikers, equestrians, etc.
Footprint Significantly Reduced to Address Concerns
During a very transparent and public process, the Mt. Spokane State Park Advisory Committee vetted plans and asked for feedback. Based on concerns raised by environmentalists beginning in 2006, the proposed plan has been revised several times, reducing the 850-acre expansion area to a 279-acre footprint. This was done to address concerns about impacts relating to removing the connector trail between the proposed expansion and the new Chair 4 pod. Studies also showed this area had a higher percentage of late succession trees.
The proposed expansion plan is the result of many ideas and alternatives that were studied and debated in the various public hearings and has been informed by numerous environmental studies. A new quad on the front was explored, but not only was it cost prohibitive, it also would not have addressed the need for additional intermediate terrain at the ski area. At $2.8 to 3 million dollars, plus the significant annual maintenance costs associated with this option, folks didn’t want a significant increase in lift ticket and season pass prices to save two minutes on the lift.
Get the Facts
The dialogue over the expansion has become a debate grounded on emotions vs. facts. It is very complex, involving land use regulations, technical expertise and a lot of people working to do the right thing for the recreational, social and economic well-being of the region. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of misinformation being distributed by opponents. Here are the facts:
Myth: This expansion removes the last remaining stand of Old Growth timber in Spokane County.
Fact: One of the many studies specifically analyzed whether the intact forest stands in the 279-acre expansion area were indeed “old growth”. The results of these contracted studies will be included in future environmental documents; however, early results now indicate that the extent of “old growth” in the expansion area is not as widespread as the opponents would like you to believe. Additionally, the proposal, to the extent practical, reduces the amount of tree removal by utilizing existing meadows or areas of blowdown to mitigate the impact to forests overall. For example, 2/3 of the 279-acre area will remain as is. Also, much of the park has already been set aside for preservation, including vast areas with no development allowed that currently exhibit “old growth characteristics”. Let’s not close down the expansion area to recreational use.
Myth: The proposal will ban snowshoers, backcountry skiers, and snowmobilers.
Fact: Traditional routes were all protected, and we will continue to work with the Mt. Spokane State Park Advisory Committee to look at additional routes. Adding lift service to this part of the mountain will make more terrain available. Opponents have been lobbying for the PASEA to be classified as Natural Forest Area. Under NFA, many of the traditional uses of the PASEA (skiing, mountain biking, snowmobiling, and equestrian, etc.) would be prohibited.
Myth: Taxpayers’ dollars are paying for the expansion.
Fact: Ultimately, Alpine skiers will pay to play. The State will benefit through increased concession rent, and in an era where budget reductions are forcing parks to close, State Parks can use all the additional revenue they can get.
This “locking horns” costs time and money, which is a shame to spend a non-profit organization’s resources in legal disputes instead of park improvements. We invite the Lands Council to drop their claims and their efforts to derail the expansion and partner with us as we work as good stewards to preserve, protect and expand a regional asset.
For information, log onto www.mtspokane.com
By Chris Bachman, Sierra Club Representative with the Save Mt. Spokane Coalition
There should be no ski area expansion allowed into the intact forest on the western slopes of Mt. Spokane in Mt. Spokane State Park. Yes, I said western slopes, which is the actual location of the proposed new “red chair.” The concessionaire has repeatedly published false information about the location of the proposed new chair. Mt. Spokane 2000 has purposely misled the public into believing that the proposed new chair will be on the north side of the mountain. I can only speculate as to the reason, but the word “north” conjures images of snow.
Mt. Spokane 2000 wants you to think the expansion is going to lead to a longer season because they are moving north. That is a theory easily tested and proven false since the current Chair 4 is actually on the north side, has been on the north side for years and season length has not been increased; in fact Chair 4 remains idle on many operational days. Mount Spokane 2000 (MS 2000) seems to be geographically challenged. They don’t want you to know they plan to clear cut old growth forest on the western slope.
Land within the boundaries of Mt. Spokane State Park belongs to the public. It belongs to all of the citizens of Washington. Public interest should be served on public lands. The Washington State Parks Commission circumvented due process when they illegally classified the land on the western slope for recreation. Quite simply, they broke the law.
On September 18, 2013, the Washington State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of The Lands Council in a court case filed on behalf of the Save Mt. Spokane Coalition and the citizens of the state of Washington (No. 43158-1-II). The court ruled the Washington State Parks Commission failed to follow Washington state SEPA law (State Environmental Policy Act) when they issued a land classification decision in May of 2011, classifying the western aspect of the mountain for recreational use. The court decision makes clear the grounds of the suit filed by The Lands Council had merit, and in fact the law had been violated when the Washington State Parks Commission issued a land classification decision without studying potential environmental impacts of that decision.
The Washington State Court of Appeals decision states: “…the Commission’s failure to prepare an EIS for the 2011 classification decision violated the terms of SEPA and its rules and was contrary to governing case law. We affirm the trial court’s ruling that the Lands Council had standing under SEPA to bring this action. We hold that SEPA required the Commission to prepare an EIS for its May 2011 classification decision and, accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s summary judgment order dismissing the Land Council’s claims under SEPA.”
The Court of Appeals decision makes clear that an Environmental Impact Survey (EIS) is required, and should have been completed, prior to the land classification decision by the Washington State Parks Commission. The court decision is the first step toward permanent protection of the publicly owned old growth forest on the western slopes of Mt. Spokane.
The publicly owned land in question is home to a watershed that supports old growth forest reminiscent of the North Cascades. Large trees abound, and the sounds of flowing water fill the air. This is a unique area for Eastern Washington, within the boundaries of a publicly owned State Park, and is worth saving and protecting. This sub alpine forest has been managed for years, albeit unclassified, as a de facto Natural Forest Area. Natural Forest Area (NFA) is a land classification designation within the State Parks system that protects qualified, un-impacted areas by permitting only change due to natural processes to affect the area. Since 1997, State Parks has managed this area as an NFA because of its unique and pristine qualities. Both the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Department of Natural Resources have declared the area worthy of NFA designation. The Save Mt. Spokane Coalition encourages the Washington State Parks Commission to issue a Natural Forest Area designation for the area of old growth on the westerly aspect of Mt. Spokane. NFA designation will preserve and protect, in perpetuity, this unique and pristine ecosystem.
Recreation within the park should remain open to all citizen user groups. Expansion of the ski area into this intact ecosystem shows preference to, and benefits only, one user group: alpine (lift-served) skiers. The area targeted for expansion is currently open to skiers and snowboarders who enjoy non-lift-served recreation as well as to snowshoers and other recreational users. This will change if the ski area is allowed to expand. Non-lift-served recreation in the expansion area will no longer be allowed. Public land will no longer be accessible to the public. Two thirds of the alpine habitat on Mt. Spokane has already been irreparably damaged by ski operations. The remaining one third should remain in a natural state.
Before any work is completed by the concessionaire (MS 2000) toward the installation of an additional chair lift, Washington State Parks is required by law to complete an Environmental Impact Survey related to the impacts of the land classification decision. This is a very important point. Regardless of misinformation flooding the community suggesting that the ski expansion will be moving forward, the recent court decision makes it clear: there will be no legal forward progress prior to the completion of, and public involvement with, the Washington State Parks land classification EIS.
About the Save Mt. Spokane Coalition
Formed in 2008, the Save Mt. Spokane Coalition is a partnership of local environmental advocacy groups that have pooled their resources to support the protection of the public land within Mt. Spokane State Park. The coalition was founded by members of The Lands Council, Sierra Club and the Spokane Mountaineers and has grown to include Spokane Audubon Society, Conservation Northwest, The Northeast Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society, and the Spokane Neighborhood Alliance.