Wildfire issues delay ski expansion analysis

Busy with wildfire issues, the U.S. Forest Service has not yet addressed concerns expressed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals regarding a proposed Mt. Ashland Ski Area expansion.

The Forest Service has to finish analysis of those concerns before the ski expansion can take place.

Environmental groups sued to stop the expansion, which was halted by a court injunction in September 2007.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals raised concerns about landslide hazard zones on the mountain and possible impacts to the Pacific fisher, a weasel-like animal.

The Forest Service hopes to start the analysis process in January or February of 2009 and finish in the spring, Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District Recreation Specialist Steve Johnson said Friday afternoon.

"We've had other priorities to work on in the last year. We haven't started yet," he said.

The Forest Service needs to issue a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. Like the previous conclusions in the agency's analysis of ski expansion impacts, the new analysis will be subject to appeal.

Johnson said Forest Service staff have been busy working on the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project.

That multi-year project involves thinning and using prescribed fire on up to 7,600 acres in the Ashland Watershed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

The Ashland City Council endorsed the Forest Service's plan in October.

Work in the watershed could begin as soon as this spring, Johnson said.

Forest Service staff were also busy this summer with wildfires in California and the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area near Crater Lake, he said.

Some of the studies done for the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project could apply to the ski area expansion since both include land in the Ashland Watershed.

Work for the wildfire fuels project included studies of the Pacific fisher, Johnson said.

Forest Service staff time was also taken up by a separate lawsuit involving the Mt. Ashland Ski Area and the City of Ashland, he said.

The Mt. Ashland Association sued the city in July 2007 and argued the Ashland City Council had tried to interfere in the expansion. Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Mark Schiveley ruled in the association's favor in October.

On Tuesday, the City Council agreed to settlement terms with the Mt. Ashland Association that the city would not appeal the ruling and would pay $85,000 to help cover the association's legal bills. The city has its own legal bills to pay that could cost as much as $225,000.

During the Tuesday council meeting, Councilor Eric Navickas tried unsuccessfully to convince fellow councilors to vote to send a letter to the Forest Service saying the city favors having the Forest Service put a low priority on recreational development in the watershed. The letter would have also said the council would like a high priority placed on restoration, water quality and fire risk reduction.

"I'm glad to hear that the Forest Service is prioritizing fuels reduction and other projects over the ski area," Navickas said Friday.

Navickas previously filed an objection against the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project.

He said Friday that he favors wildfire fuels reduction work, but is concerned about road reconstruction, helicopter pad construction and cutting of commercially sized trees as part of the thinning project.

Also on Tuesday night, other councilors rejected a suggestion from Councilor Cate Hartzell that the city send a letter to the Forest Service asking to be kept in the communication loop so the city would be informed about any expansion activities.

Ski Area General Manager Kim Clark said Friday that the Mt. Ashland Association would have rejected its settlement with the city over the lawsuit if the suggestions from Navickas or Hartzell had passed.

Clark said he is understanding that the Forest Service has been too busy with other activities to work on ski expansion analysis. But he said the studies on the Pacific fisher done for the wildfire risk reduction project will be useful for the ski expansion analysis.

"We're encouraging them to get going and to try and stay on schedule. We understand that they've been tied up with fire issues and staff cuts and everything else," Clark said.

In the past several years, the Forest Service has downsized nationally. Locally, the Ashland Ranger District and the Applegate Ranger District were combined and renamed the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit www.dailytidings.com.

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