Activist group opposes plans to expand Stevens Pass ski area

A new mountain-biking area and more ski runs at Stevens Pass would mean more opportunities for recreation there in the future.

It also could mean harm to the forest and wildlife, according to an environmental group.

Stevens Pass hopes to begin work next year on new mountain biking trails, and eventually expand its recreation area — from its current 588 acres to 938 — over 10 to 20 years.

At times, Stevens Pass now has too many people who want to use the restaurants, the ski runs and chairlifts, officials said.

“On peak days, on weekends, it’s just too crowded,” said John Meriwether, director of environmental planning for Stevens Pass.

Development of the mountain bike trails and practice area are estimated to cost about $1 million, he said. The ski-area expansion could cost $20 million.

The Sierra Club believes the plan’s potential damage to the environment is being played down by the ski area and by the U.S. Forest Service, which is in charge of approving permits for the project. The land is in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Wenatchee national forests on the border of King and Chelan counties.

“A lot of it’s going to be very aggressive and a lot of it’s going to be very destructive,” said Mark Lawler, national forest chairman for the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club in Seattle. “It involves clear-cutting of lots of old-growth forest that’s basically irreplaceable.”

Stevens officials dispute the “clear-cutting” term and said they’ll be thinning the trees and creating relatively narrow ski runs.

A U.S. Forest Service official said both Stevens Pass and the Sierra Club are correct, to a point.

“Ski runs are the absence of trees,” said Sean Wetterberg, winter sports program coordinator for the Forest Service in Everett. “So that could be characterized as a clear-cut.” He also acknowledged the plans for thinning and to keep runs narrow.

There’s also disagreement over whether the area proposed for expansion contains old-growth trees. The Sierra Club says yes, the Forest Service says no.

The Sierra Club believes Stevens Pass should be required to prepare an environmental impact statement for the expansion, considered a thorough, expensive process.

The environmental group is concerned about a preliminary statement by the Forest Service that the mountain-bike areas won’t have a significant effect on the environment, and therefore an impact statement shouldn’t be necessary for that part of the plan.

“Our concern is they want to piecemeal it,” Lawler said.

Wetterberg said that while the effect of the long-term build-out of the ski areas is being considered as part of the review of the bike trails, those projects “aren’t proposed at this time for authorization and implementation.”

The statement by the Forest Service is not final, and it will study the issue through the fall and winter before making a decision, Wetterberg said.

When the time comes for Stevens to build the ski areas, separate reviews with opportunity for public input will be done again then, Wetterberg said.

“What that fails to do is look at the cumulative effects of what they’re doing now along with what they’re doing later on,” said Charlie Raines, a National Forests specialist with the Sierra Club.

A public meeting was held in Everett in June on the first phase of the plan, which includes the mountain bike areas and a water-treatment plant. At the meetings and in writing, 51 comments were received, with most of them favorable to the plan, Wetterberg said.

The public will have more chances to comment when the Forest Services finishes its preliminary report on the plan as soon as next winter, he said.

The new layout eventually could attract an average of more than 1,800 more skiers and snowboarders per day, depending on the economy and transportation costs, but they’d have more room.

The mountain-bike trails could provide a greater variety of activities and will allow the area to be used when there’s no snow, officials said.

“We have this multimillion-dollar facility that just sits idle in the summertime,” Meriwether said.

Eventually, ski trails would grow from the current 37 with a total of 130 trail segments to 237, and lifts from 12 to 15. Two small lodges and two yurts would be built in higher elevations, on the edges of the property.

The base area would be expanded, and 12 percent more parking would be added. The current “comfortable” number for skiers and snowboarders per day is about 5,670, according to Stevens Pass. If the expansion is completed, that’s expected to increase by 1,810 to 7,480.

Meriwether said Stevens Pass plans to go beyond what it’s required to do environmentally, with sediment control, minimal cutting of old-growth trees and working around or replacing wetlands.

The mountain-bike area is proposed to consist of seven downhill trails, including beginning, intermediate and advanced runs, with jumps and obstacles.

“It winds around the mountainside,” said Chester Marler, director of planning for Stevens Pass.

There would also be a “skills park” area near the base area where people could learn and practice, he said.

The Sierra Club plans to take advantage of upcoming opportunities to file written objections to the plans, Lawler said.

Its biggest concern is the cutting of trees, he said, adding that forest corridors used by wildlife in the Cascades have already been affected by logging in other areas.

Wolverines, now rare in the 48 contiguous United States, have been seen in Washington’s Cascade Range, Lawler noted.

“The big picture needs to be explained to the public, not this piecemeal approach,” he said.

Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or sheets@heraldnet.com.

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