Lift chairs sit stacked and ready to expand Mt. Spokane's ski terrain. (photo: MS2000)

Court Stops Mt. Spokane Ski Area Expansion

Spokane, WA – Workers this summer dismantled a double chairlift at Bridger Bowl near Bozeman, Mont., and moved it to Mt. Spokane to install on 850 acres of previously undeveloped terrain on the mountain’s northwestern flank. Some timber harvesting to prepare the liftline has already taken place, and ski area officials hoped to have the new lift running by winter 2014-15. A Washington State appeals court, however, has now brought that effort to a grinding halt.

The court sided with environmentalists in its ruling published on Tuesday, indicating that the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission erred by not requiring a detailed study of how the new lift and ski runs would impact old-growth forest, meadows and wetlands before reaching its decision to approve the project.

Following a seven-year effort, Mt. Spokane 2000 — the non-profit that operates the ski area on a lease with the Washington State Park System dating to the 1950s — received approval from the commission in the spring of 2011 to expand its terrain into the mountain’s northwest quadrant, reclassifying that portion of the 14,000-acre Mt. Spokane State Park to allow for ski area use. The decision required Mt. Spokane 2000 to complete a detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) when later submitting a detailed development proposal. Mt. Spokane thereafter acquired the necessary permits to begin the project.

After a trial court judge granted a summary judgment motion to Mt. Spokane 2000 in February 2012, a coalition of Inland Northwest environmental groups including The Lands Council pursued their appeal to Washington Superior Court, arguing that Spokane County’s largest stand of old growth forest was at stake in the decision reached without first reviewing an EIS.

Lift chairs sit stacked and ready to expand Mt. Spokane's ski terrain. (photo: MS2000)
Lift chairs sit stacked and ready to expand Mt. Spokane’s ski terrain. (photo: MS2000)

On Tuesday, the appellate court in Tacoma agreed.

“The Commission’s failure to prepare an EIS for the 2011 classification decision violated the terms of SEPA (the State Environmental Policy Act) and its rules and was contrary to governing case law,” the judges wrote in their decision. “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.”

“We’ve worked very hard with the Spokane community and regulatory agencies to create a plan that many believe balances recreation and stewardship priorities,” said Brad McQuarrie, General Manager of Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park said in July while acknowledging,  “Our vision for the expansion remains strong, yet a series of very technical, specific questions posed by opponents need to be addressed.” McQuarrie argues that the new terrain is necessary to provide more snow-sure intermediate runs to compete with other ski resorts in the region.

“We hope that the Parks Commission now steps back and questions the plans that the ski area concessionaire has for this park,” Mike Petersen of the Lands Council said following Tuesday’s decision. “We hope to work with the Parks Commission and the concessionaire to improve the existing ski area, and have our own vision that would bring more visitors and still protect the most important old growth forest in Spokane County,” he added, referencing his group’s recommendation that Mt. Spokane 2000 instead expand and upgrade skiing facilities on the remaining two-thirds of the mountain where alpine skiing already takes place.

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