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Originally published January 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 28, 2009 at 1:02 PM

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Stevens Pass expansion to include ski and bike trails; review plan brings controversy

Skiers and mountain bikers are excited about new bike and ski trails proposed for Stevens Pass. But the environmental-review process elected by the U.S. Forest Service for the project is in dispute.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information online

U.S. Forest Service: www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs/projects/stevens-pass-mdp/index.shtml

Stevens Pass: www.stevenspass.com/

Stevens Pass ski area would gain new ski trails and lifts and an entire new season of recreation for mountain bikers under an expansion plan now under consideration.

Mountain bikers are stoked about a plan to add about five miles of downhill trails, reached by the Hogsback chairlift, for summer use. The trails would include jumps, drops, and other adrenaline pumpers — all with optional bypasses — to rival the trails at Whistler, B.C.

No such gravity rush by chairlift is currently available to mountain bikers in Washington.

"There is a definitely a big market for that kind of thing, and it's growing faster than there are places to ride," said Adam Schaeffer, service manager at the Downhill Zone mountain-bike shop in Seattle.

A mountain biker himself, Schaeffer sees great potential for the trails planned for Stevens, especially with the benefit of chairlift access. The location, just an hour and a half from Seattle, is another major attraction, Schaeffer said.

"You are up and back in a day. What is not to like?"

The mountain-bike trails are in phase one of a master plan for the ski area envisioned to be built over the next 10 to 15 years by the resort owner, Harbor Properties of Seattle.

The bike trails are planned for use by summer 2010.

Phase two of the master plan includes a new chairlift and additional ski trails east of the summit. It is envisioned for use by the winter of 2011. A new mountain lodge at the top of the Skyline lift is proposed, with hot food and year-round access to serve mountain bikers as well as skiers.

All of the phase one and two improvements for skiers and bikers are within the current permit area for the resort, which is entirely on public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The ski area, as part of its master plan, would also like to add about 136 acres to the resort, to tidy up boundaries and for better avalanche control. No new development is planned there.

Under the long-term master plan, the number of chairlifts would increase to 15 from 12; the number of trails would grow to 237 trails on 938 acres from 130 on 588 acres. Restaurant seating would be increased, and parking added.

"We definitely could use some more lifts and lodge capacity," said Bob Burton, of Seattle, president of the board of directors of the Stevens Pass Alpine Club. With both good beginner runs as well as steep and open runs, Burton sees great new potential for Stevens — his favorite venue in the Northwest for 40 years.

"It's very crowded on the weekend, and we would look forward to some new lifts and trails, to give us some additional ski areas."

Permit method questioned

But the permitting method elected by the Forest Service to review the developer's proposal is creating controversy.

Stevens Pass is the last of the major ski areas in the Seattle area to propose expansion — and the first the feds and developer propose to handle with a phased environmental analysis.

With both Crystal Mountain and the Summit at Snoqualmie, the Forest Service approved expansions and enhancements only after a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) of the complete master plan for the projects.

The analyses included a look at cumulative effects, alternatives to the proposed plans and mitigation to offset harm to the environment.

But under an approach new in the Northwest, the Forest Service this time wants to examine the master plan for Stevens under an abbreviated environmental assessment of only the first phase of the project. Other steps in the expansion would be examined as phases of the project progress.

The so-called phased approach has been used elsewhere in the country but not here — and so far, it's not going over well with conservation groups.

Just looking at phase one — which includes upgrades to the water system — doesn't provide a complete picture of what the ski area could become over time, said Charlie Raines, of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club, which is fighting a phased review.

"I am flabbergasted the Forest Service thinks they can slice this up into little pieces so they can avoid taking an overall look. The Forest Service needs to be making decisions about the entire landscape, not taking these things one at a time," Raines said.

A comprehensive effects analysis promised as part of the phased approach also falls short, Raines argued, because mitigation, if any, would be ordered at this stage for only phase one of the project — not the whole master plan.

The Sierra Club was instrumental in the recently approved expansion of the Summit at Snoqualmie in which significant mitigation, including purchase of forest lands to make up for new development at the ski area, was part of the deal.

But John Meriwether, director of planning for Stevens Pass resort, said because of uncertainties about future development, from financing to climate change, it doesn't make business sense to negotiate a mitigation plan up front for portions of the master plan that might never be built.

"Why waste money on analysis of all this stuff we may never do?" Meriwether said.

"This phasing process is new to the Pacific Northwest. The way it's been done in Washington is you submit a master plan and do an EIS on the whole thing. But it is much more economical and practical to do it in phases, because it focuses on the actual impact of what is going to happen in the foreseeable future."

Sean Wetterberg, winter-sports specialist for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, also favors the phased approach.

"This does represent a change in the process from the way we have done master plans at other ski areas in the forest," Wetterberg said. "We've learned a lot."

"We want to do meaningful environmental analysis on a realistic proposal, in a reasonable amount of time."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published January 25, 2009, was corrected January 28, 2009. A previous version of this story misidentified a Mt. Safety Team member in the photo caption. The caption has been corrected to identify Debbie Schneider.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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