PHILIPSBURG — In geometry, a line is the relationship between two points. When the points are a town and its neighboring ski resort, a line can be very hard to find.
This month, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved a new road to Discovery Ski Area’s north side — the side visible from Philipsburg’s hilly streets. It might cut the drive-time from town by 20 or 30 minutes. But it won’t quite connect the two points. And folks at both ends sound prepared to let that relationship take its time growing.
“We’ll never have a road from downtown if we don’t start from the ski hill and work backward,” said Bill Dirkes, whose Sunshine Station gas station/convenience store/restaurant/bar has straddled the stream of Highway 1 tourist traffic for 30 years. “We know how important that ski hill is to our town.”
On a counter between the store and the bar, Dirkes has stacked sacks of Discovery lift tickets. Each one entitles the bearer to a free drink at the Sunshine Station, and Dirkes has collected more than 5,000 this year.
“My winter this year was better than last year, and I usually get between 10 and 12 percent of Discovery’s visitors,” he said. “Last year, I got 6,200 tickets and they had about 62,000 skier visits. I’m thinking I’ll beat that when I count them.”
Those visitors have to turn east off Highway 1 past Sunshine Station to reach Philipsburg. That means interrupting the 13-mile drive through winding Flint Creek Pass to and from Discovery’s slopes. And in winter, that’s a tough turn to make.
“It used to be, before 2008 and the recession, we had to do all our business in 12 weeks from mid-June through July and part of August and September,” said Shirley Beck, owner of the Sweet Palace in Philipsburg’s historic Walker Commercial Co. building. “Those 12 weeks had to carry the other 40. You’d use the time from January to March to do your cleaning and fill the cracks.”
Business is getting back to that cycle after five rough years. And Beck said she hopes to see some more skiers seeking fudge or taffy to sustain their downhill runs or the ride home. But she also expects the change to come slow.
“I’m a realist,” Beck said. “If saving them some minutes on the way to the hill saves them some time to ski Discovery one more time a year, we all have things to offer. I think it’s going to be really good for Discovery. And a rising tide lifts all boats.”
At the other end of the line, Ciche Pitcher looked at a flurry of late-March snowflakes outside the Discovery Ski Area lodge and hoped to keep the same coming.
“Our goal is to focus on providing a quality skiing experience and being really good at that,” the second-generation owner said. “I’m reluctant to think you can throw parties at a ski area and get people from Spokane or Billings to drive over. The community of Philipsburg does an amazing job of putting on festivals and attracting people as they come to the national parks. I think it’s unrealistic to think we can make winter as profitable for them as summer is. But if we can get more people to stay in Philipsburg, the multiplier for all of us is better.”
Plans for the new road remain on the bunny slope for now. The spur off Rumsey Road would reach a parking lot with a ticket office, bathrooms and possibly some snack food at the bottom of Discovery’s best powder stash. To reach the main base area, a black-diamond skier must ride up the Silver Chief chairlift, mogul down to the Granite Lift, ride to the summit, and ski down the south face of Rumsey Mountain.
Forget to reverse the process before closing time and you’ve got a problem: There’s no easy way around to the north base. Pitcher jokes he’s considering a catapult to launch late north-side skiers back to their cars.
No plans exist for a facility mirroring Discovery’s original base area. Nor are there plans for a hotel or restaurant on the north side. Any of the dozen or so private residents along Rumsey Road might opt to create a bed-and-breakfast or other kind of ski lodging business. But that’s not in Discovery’s long-range vision.
“There’s a certain level of skier who would prefer being over there all day long,” Pitcher said. “They like the black diamonds. But one reason we don’t want to replace the existing base area is it’s one of the things that makes Discovery so unique. We have a fantastic beginner area, and it’s all over on this side. We’re not going to lose something that’s given us an advantage over the years.”
Discovery sits in a comfortable niche among the Montana ski options. It draws about the same numbers as Missoula’s Snowbowl, even though it’s 90 minutes away instead of 19. It usually does better than the Lookout and Lost Trail areas, which are each about two hours distant. It’s not as big as Whitefish Mountain or Big Sky, but also doesn’t have the headaches of being a “destination resort” in need of urban planning.
Ciche’s father Peter Pitcher bought the north base area in 2003 from a longtime Philipsburg landowner who was downsizing his holdings. The site fit well with Discovery’s existing runs, which are mainly on U.S. Forest Service land. The problem of how to get there was postponed.
Rumsey Road also doesn’t make Philipsburg’s dream come true. It meets Highway 1 about 1.5 miles south of town, just before the main road bends around a ridge. Motorists still must make a conscious choice to seek a coffee at the Daily Grind or a beer in the Philipsburg Brewing Co.
The drive goes into the forest several miles before crossing a power line corridor. BLM owns much of that corridor, which provides the straightest, simplest line to Discovery’s northern edge. Other roads meander through the area, but linking them or finding the legal easements looked like too much of a problem to pursue.
Instead, Discovery asked the Granite County commissioners to formally request the road from BLM. Pitcher said the government-to-government route meant the agencies would cover the cost of a National Environmental Policy Act environmental analysis. The process got started in 2006, but bogged down.
“There were some questions about wildlife habitat, but I think the real problem was there were just too many interested parties,” Pitcher said. So Discovery restarted the road request and paid for its own, more extensive EA.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Ray Vinkey lives in Philipsburg and participated in the analysis. He said the Rumsey Road area sees some hunting interest, but its existing development has fragmented much of the habitat.
“The department was interested in looking at the growth of the area comprehensively, and understanding how putting a road there will have additional human impacts to wildlife and habitat,” Vinkey said. “Our suggestions were geared to that, and the possibility for a neighborhood growth plan for the area.”
While the new road isn’t likely to damage elk calving grounds or winter range, Vinkey said increased motor traffic is likely to change animal activity. Last week, he had to respond to a moose hit by a car on the south-side Discovery road. Such incidents accumulate with development, and developers should be aware of it.
“We’re not trying to say development shouldn’t occur, just exploring working with existing landowners to minimize those impacts,” Vinkey said. “We want a planning process that makes sure what occurs along Rumsey Road is what citizens want there.”
Most of those citizens are more concerned with keeping Philipsburg from fragmenting. When asked what part of town services has top priority, Mayor Craig Sorensen replies “pick a system.” Its water comes through seven miles of above-ground pipes with no filtration, its sewer lagoons are overloaded, storm-drain pipes are failing, and a “pothole installation crew that works at night for no charge” keeps his road crew jumping during the day.
The idea of a resort tax wouldn’t go very far in a place with Philipsburg’s do-it-yourself attitude, Sorensen said. The city government is serving as its own general contractor to expand city hall, saving 10 percent off the top.
“The populace is resistant to a sales tax of any sort,” Sorensen said. “But they’re starting to see they may need that extra money to maintain infrastructure. Towns like this traditionally make it on either property taxes or water and sewer fees. For a small town with an aging population, we’re getting to the max on those.”
Philipsburg’s population has shrunk from about 913 in 2000 to 820 in the 2010 census. Adding access to Discovery’s black-diamond powder slopes in winter probably won’t affect the town as much as its plan to add mountain biking trails this summer, Sorensen said.
“The ski season is what it is, from whenever we have enough snow until the Forest Service contract closing date,” Sorensen said. “But in the summer, with Ciche adding the downhill bike trails, we’d like to develop some cross-country trails that would go around local roads and sites. This could be a training ground for bikers.”
Indeed, the hills above Philipsburg have fishing lakes, old ghost towns, mining relics and curious geology that could fascinate the two-wheeled crowd. And Pitcher is equally excited about making Discovery more of a year-round place.
“We also considered zip lines or alpine slides,” Pitcher said. “Those can be very successful in a place with a large metro base, but that’s not really us. Our design right now is a downhill park, fully on the ski area, We’d love to see development of cross-country single-track trails as well, to connect a lot of the existing trails up here.”
Both the road and the bike trails will begin construction soon after the ski season ends April 6. After working seven days a week since Thanksgiving, Pitcher can’t wait to exchange his insulated boots for flip-flops. But Discovery won’t make quite such a significant change.
“There is a perception that with this access we’re all of a sudden able to be Telluride or something,” Pitcher said. “It’s important to understand that’s not our goal. It’s a much more modest outcome than that.”