Snowbowl Expansion Delayed as U.S. Forest Service Investigates

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Sign for Snowbowl ski area

Snowbowl is hoping to nearly double in size if the owners can get the U.S. Forest Service permits and the financing.

Nearly a decade ago, Montana Snowbowl announced a plan to nearly double the size of the ski hill just 12 miles north of Missoula. Since then the permit process and economics of the plan have been slow to materialize, but that may be about to change.

Much of the expansion is planned for TV Mountain, which sits in the Lolo National Forest, and would include the addition of three new ski lifts, 20 new trails and two ski service buildings.

Proponents of the plan say it is a natural expansion since TV Mountain was the original home of Snowbowl, or as it was known then, Snow Park.

“You can still see where the runs were cleared. It’s got electronic sites. It’s got roads all over it. This is probably the best use for it, as a ski area,” Bradley Morris, Snowbowl’s owner said.

But TV Mountain’s location within the Lolo National Forest means the owners must obtain permission from the U.S. Forest Service before ground can be broken on the new development.

Any permit from the Forest Service like the one sought by Snowbowl must go through a three-stage process which includes an initial proposal, master plan and an environmental evaluation of the project.

“[First] you submit a proposal to the Forest Service and they check it to make sure everything is legal and whatnot. If that’s O.K. you submit a master plan, a detailed proposal. After they’ve accepted that, the third stage is the environmental evaluation process which is where we’ve been since 2004,” Morris said.

Currently, a Forest Service team of staff members with expertise in the areas potentially affected by the project is reviewing Snowbowl’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to analyze the possible fallout from expansion.

“[W]e are hoping for a decision this spring,” Boyd Hartwig, public affairs afficer of Lolo National Forest, said in an email.

But Morris said an imminent decision from the government seems unlikely, saying, “For the last three years it has always been three months.”

The release of the environmental assessment in March 2011 was followed a 45-day comment period. Members of the public submitted about 60 comments and before the Forest Service can issue its decisions on the EIS it must review all issues raised during the comment period.

According to the Forest Service, the team is still addressing those issues and expects the final EIS and the final decision to be released in spring/summer 2013.

According to Hartwig, the group is also waiting for “for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to display their analysis and findings regarding the effects of the project on Threatened and Endangered species.”

The species in question, the bull trout, is listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and has been found in Butler Creek downstream of Snowbowl.

Snowbowl currently uses the creek for snowmaking and the proposed expansion would require them to use more water from the creek, potentially threatening the rare trout.

Much of Snowbowl’s expansion appears tied to this report from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, according to Morris.

“We just have to wait to get their opinion,” Morris said.

Once there is a final ruling on the Snowbowl permit, construction on the project could begin as soon as this summer.

“The first thing we would have to do is do more surveying. And we’d have to clear the lift line to do the survey. When the survey was done we could start with the design of the lift,” Morris said.

Even if the permit decision comes down soon, the work needed to plan and build a new lift would mean it would not open until the ski season of 2014-2015.

The project would also have to address the other major challenge facing Morris and his backers — money.

While the exact cost of the expansion is currently unknown, Morris confirmed previous statements that it would be funded by the additional money brought in by more skiers.

“When we put the original proposal together, we calculated, at the time, there was more than enough demand for it,” Morris said.

And he said there still is.

“We’re operating at capacity here,” Morris said. “All the skiers are excited about it. They always want and are looking for more terrain, something new.”