Environmentalists prevail in expansion lawsuit

deciding the U.S. Forest Service didn't properly evaluate the effects ski area expansion on Mount Ashland would have on local waterways and wildlife, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals may have sent the project back to square one.

Marianne Dugan, attorney for the three environmental groups that won the appeal, told the Associated Press that she sees no way for the Mt. Ashland Ski Area to go ahead with its current plan because it would remove trees on steep slopes with a high risk of erosion, sending silt into a tributary of Ashland Creek that feeds the city of Ashland's drinking water reservoir.

"They can't move the landslide hazard areas," she said. "They have to move the project."

The federal appeals court for the western United States ruled on Monday that the Forest Service didn't "appropriately designate" riparian reserves in the expansion area, and "failed to properly evaluate" the impacts on the Pacific fisher, a rare mink that lives in the Siskiyou Mountains.

"The MASA (Mount Ashland Ski Area) expansion would result in eliminating habitat that may be vital to preservation of the fisher population in the project area," the three-judge court wrote in its opinion. "Similarly, until the Riparian Reserves and Restricted Watershed lands are properly classified and subjected to additional scrutiny required by these classifications, the possibility of environmental harm to the ecological health of the region's waterways remains."

Since 1998 the Mt. Ashland Association, the non-profit group that operates the ski area on Mount Ashland, has been working toward an expansion project that would have added 16 ski trails, two chair lifts and about 200 parking spaces to the snow park. The project would also have cleared about 70 acres of trees in the headwaters of Ashland's municipal water supply.

Ski area officials have said the expansion project is essential to long-term financial viability, while environmentalists said the project would have adverse effects on Ashland's drinking water.

9th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion —

Mt. Ashland Association issued a press release Monday saying members of the board of directors and staff "will review the court decision with its legal counsel to determine its next course of action."

It also said the ruling "remains subject to appeal."

Several members of the board of directors either declined to comment on the ruling or didn't return phone calls. Forest Service employees also didn't return calls seeking a comment on the ruling.

Tom Dimitre, executive director of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, a plaintiff to the lawsuit, said the ruling marks an opportunity for Mt. Ashland Association to sit down with environmentalists and work out a compromise.

"It seems to me there is a win-win for everyone in this," he said. "We just need to sit down and figure it all out. We'll give them as much as we can, we just don't want roadless areas cut or fisher habitat cut. But let's find some other areas that can work."

Ashland City Councilor Eric Navickas, who was a party to the lawsuit as an individual before the case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit, said, "I'm pretty ecstatic. We expected this after sitting through the court hearing but it feels a lot better to have decision from the court. It really shows what a waste of time that whole process has been. Hopefully Mt. Ashland will accept that it lost and stop dumping money into this."

He said if the expansion plans are off the table he will end his 10-year boycott of the Mt. Ashland slopes and go skiing this winter.

Ashland City Administrator Martha Bennett said the ruling from the Ninth takes the pressure off the city from a lawsuit the MAA filed against Ashland earlier this year.

"Their lawsuit against us claiming we delayed them is probably not really relevant right now," she said. "I think the question of whether we delayed them is kind of moot now."

Bennett said the city will be particularly interested in the part of the ruling related to run-off, because sedimentation in Reeder Reservoir has been one of the city's primary issues with the expansion project.

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