Ski-area plan gets praise, criticism

ASHLAND — Depending on your perspective, the U.S. Forest Service’s final decision released Monday on the hotly debated Mount Ashland ski area expansion proposal is either foresight or folly.

"It’s a small improvement that will make a really big difference," said Jeff Hanson, general manager of the Mount Ashland Association, which operates the nonprofit, community-owned ski and snowboard area.

"It won’t please everybody, but frankly, I believe it’s a great balance," he added. "This will be one of the most environmentally sensitive ski area improvements ever done."

Horsefeathers, responds Joseph Vaile, spokesman for the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

"The fact they are still going in to the McDonald Peak roadless area, that is real troubling," Vaile said. "They are still going to carve ski runs into the middle fork of the east fork of Ashland Creek."

"That’s a real problem for folks," he added. "They are concerned about breaking up an unfragmented forest in a roadless area."

Both proponents and opponents to the proposed expansion plan cautioned they need to fully study the final environmental impact statement, or FEIS, and decision document.

But the gut reaction appears to be that the decision won’t likely be the last word in the debate.

"I think this is just another beginning," Vaile said.

The decision by forest supervisor Scott Conroy permits expansion by 71 acres of ski and snowboard runs largely in the middle branch of the east fork of Ashland Creek, allowing two new chairlifts and two new surface lifts.

It also calls for cutting nearly 2 million board feet of timber on 68 acres, widening seven ski runs and building a four-acre tubing facility in the southern section of a special-use permit area atop Mount Ashland in the Rogue River National Forest.

The expansion would create 16 new runs, two for expert skiers and the rest for novice to advanced intermediate skiers.

The decision authorizes the creation of guest services buildings and a yurt and increasing parking by 220 spaces.

The expansion would affect 40 acres in the 9,459-acre McDonald Peak roadless area.

The decision selects a modified version of the alternative proposed by the association. Six alternatives were included in the FEIS.

The expansion was formally initiated in 1998 by the association, although expansion has been discussed for some three decades. Work could begin in the summer of 2005.

Hanson estimated it would cost from $5 million to $10 million to complete the project if it moves forward as planned.

"There is a lot of hard work to do with analysis costs and detailed phasing plans," he said, "This wouldn’t be done all at once."

Administrative appeals to the decision must be filed with 45 days after a legal notice is placed in the Mail Tribune. The notice is tentatively scheduled to appear Sept. 20.

If the decision is appealed, the agency has 50 days to resolve the appeal. If there is no resolution, the issue could then be litigated.

The ski area is operated by the association for the city of Ashland. The city holds the special-use permit for the 125-acre area.

"The city is glad to have a decision but at this point we need to look at the details," said Paula Brown, public works director for the city.

City staff will study the document and prepare an update to the council when it meets Oct. 6, she said.

The city’s water supply is derived from the watershed, prompting much of the opposition to expanding into that area.

Tonya Graham, executive director of the Ashland-based Headwaters environmental group, said an alternative put forth by Headwaters wasn’t analyzed in its original format by the Forest Service before it made its decision.

"From what we’ve seen so far, we’re very disappointed," she said. "Headwaters and the users group put a lot of time and effort into that. To have it disappear in the final is very disappointing. I think the bulk of this community could have gotten behind it."

Much of the opposition is based on expansion into the watershed with its potential for causing erosion problems, disturbing rare plants and cutting old-growth trees.

Tom Dimitre, chairman of the Rogue Group Sierra Club, which is opposed to expansion into the watershed, said he wasn’t surprised by the decision.

"Certainly we’re disappointed," he said. "It’s too bad the Forest Service didn’t come up with a decision that would have stayed out of the middle branch."

But Greg Williams, board president of the Mount Ashland Association, believes it was the right decision.

"This decision is great news for kids and families in our local communities," he said.

Copies of the FEIS and decision document will be available this week at the Rogue River forest headquarters in Medford, the Ashland Ranger District office in Ashland and the Klamath National Forest headquarters in Yreka.

The documents and detailed maps are available on the Rogue River forest Web site.

ForestsKlamath Siskiyou