Critic pans long EIS process for Lookout Pass Ski Area expansion

2014-04-24T11:10:00Z 2014-04-24T11:21:15Z Critic pans long EIS process for Lookout Pass Ski Area expansionBy DAVID ERICKSON Missoulian The Billings Gazette
April 24, 2014 11:10 am  • 

LOOKOUT PASS – A group of ski and snowboard enthusiasts are hoping that a proposal to expand Lookout Pass Ski Area, located on the Montana/Idaho border two hours west of Missoula, doesn’t run into the same problems and lengthy delays that plagued Montana Snowbowl’s expansion plans.

The long, bureaucratic process for expanding a ski area in the U.S. is nowhere more evident than at Snowbowl, which sits partly on federal lands 12 miles north of Missoula. The ski area proposed nearly doubling its terrain and constructing four new ski lifts in 2004. It has taken 10 years, countless delays and hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the Lolo National Forest appears prepared to release a final Record of Decision to approve the expansion this month. It took nine years before the final environmental impact statement was released.

No one can accuse the U.S. Forest Service of not doing its due diligence in the interest of protecting public lands for posterity. However, those kinds of delays are intolerable to Barry Dutton, a spokesperson for Friends of Lookout Pass, an advocacy group dedicated to speeding up the process to expand Lookout.

“It shouldn’t take over 15 years and $1 million to complete a permit process like it just did at Montana Snowbowl,” he said.

Five years ago, Lookout made a proposal to expand its boundary by 654 acres on surrounding Forest Service lands, construct 15 new ski runs and build two new chairlifts, among other projects. The expansion is part of its master plan to increase skier satisfaction and safety.

Right now, the Idaho Panhandle National Forest and the Lolo National Forest are in the process of gathering public comments on the proposal. Dutton says that his group holds the Snowbowl expansion as the poster child of government red tape impeding on a popular business, and the Lookout expansion is on pace to repeat that example.

“The whole issue here is we’re trying to support affordable skiing and a Rocky Mountain lifestyle,” he said. “It’s just come to the point now where we are treating small area ski expansions like strip mines with expensive processes. There have been a dozen ski area expansions in the region over the past decade. None of them have been controversial, none of them have shown significant environmental or social affects. They all are positive in terms of millions of days of recreation for the public.”

Dutton estimates that every year of delay will cost the ski area money and add $1 to $5 to the price of a lift ticket. His group is advocating that the Forest Service complete an environmental analysis instead of the more costly and time-consuming environmental impact statement. He also said that the IPNF required Lookout to hire a new contractor to conduct the EIS, rather than the contractor who did the EIS last time, which cost Lookout $100,000.

“This would save years off the process and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and remember that $100,000 is more than the profit from an entire season’s lift tickets,” he said. “The Forest Service has never explained why this small expansion needs an EIS. Blacktail Mountain was permitted as an EA, and Snowbowl should have been an EA. There are good reasons for an EA at Lookout.”

Jay Kirchner, the public affairs officer with the IPNF, said that an EIS is required at Lookout because it is a project of greater complexity.

“There are endangered species issues up there and we want to make sure we address all those significant issues properly,” he said. “The last time there was an expansion, that was an even smaller project and that was an EIS, as well. Ultimately what our goal is, for a big project like this with a lot of people interested, is for it to be a good quality project.”

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According to Boyd Hartwig, public affairs officer for the Lolo National Forest, all projects proposed on National Forest System lands that are subject to the procedural requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act require the preparation of environmental documents.

A whole range of resource specialists are required to analyze the potential impacts on resources within their area of expertise. The Snowbowl expansion interdisciplinary group, or ID team, included a team leader/NEPA specialist, wildlife and fisheries biologists, forested vegetation and visual quality specialists, an archaeologist, a botanist, a soil scientist, a hydrologist and an air quality specialist.

Boyd said a number of factors contributed to the delays in approving the Snowbowl expansion.

“While environmental analyses are usually conducted in-house, due to workload and staffing capacity issues, in 2005 MSB and the Lolo NF negotiated a contract with a third-party contractor to prepare an EIS to analyze the proposed expansion,” he said. “The Forest Service’s role in the analysis included oversight and review. From 2005 to 2011 the project moved slowly through the NEPA process because of changing ownership of the third-party contractor’s business and delays in submitting their material to the LNF for review. Each member of the ID Team prepared a report which included a detailed analysis of the effects of the proposal on their resource. Information from these reports along with more detail about the proposal and the planning process were compiled to complete the draft EIS.”

The draft EIS was completed in 2011, and after reviewing public comments, the Forest Service released the final EIS in 2013.

Dutton is only half joking when he says that the effects of climate change might make ski areas obsolete before the Forest Service approves an expansion at Lookout.

“The impacts of small ski area expansion are known,” he said. “They should just summarize the impacts and stick them in a report. It doesn’t take these endless delays of years and endless analysis. It’s not rocket science. Our concern is the whole process that the Forest Service is putting these ski areas through is putting them out of business. It’s a complete lack of management and response on the part of the Forest Service. At Snowbowl, they had one specialist after another requesting one study after another. It was all unnecessary. There were periods where they were doing nothing and the process stalled for months and years.”

Dutton said no ski area expansion project in the northern Rocky Mountains has been denied in recent history, and all have been hailed as successes after the expansion.

“Lookout expanded in 2002, and before the expansion Lookout had between 15,000-20,000 user visits a year and was barely limping along,” Dutton said. “The owner put in a two-chair expansion and within two years they are at 50-60,000. The public responded in spades and rewarded them for expanding. Now they are trying again, and the Forest Service is going down the road of a 15-year process. It’s been five years, we are just at the public scoping period. We’re barely getting out of the starting gate. It would be OK if there was a reason for all of this, but there’s no reason for these delays and huge expenses.”

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