Ruling clarifies expansion fight

The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against the proposed expansion of the Mount Ashland ski area makes you wonder if any project could ever be approved on the federal lands above Ashland.

The Mount Ashland Association says it's prepared to find out. We wish them luck — and they'll need it to thrash through the maze of environmental rules that must be addressed.

Despite the setback from the federal appeals court, the possibility that the ski area will expand actually advanced last week, as the hurdles placed before it have now been essentially reduced to two. Whether those two issues can be overcome remains to be seen, but at least the target has been more clearly defined by the ruling.

In essence, the court said the U.S. Forest Service and ski area proponents must do more work in evaluating whether the project would harm the Pacific fisher, a small weasel-like animal, and that the proposal failed to adequately identify land that should not be disturbed because of erosion or watershed concerns.

No one at the Forest Service is talking, but there seems to be a consensus elsewhere that the Pacific fisher issue can be addressed. There is little evidence of Pacific fisher activity in the area. In fact, so little that the Forest Service did not spend enough time addressing it, according to the court. (They did not spend much time determining if there were endangered rhinoceroses in the area, either, but that's a another story.) The Forest Service now needs to do a broader review of the threat to the Pacific fisher; it seems likely that threat is extremely minimal or nonexistent.

Issues involving soil stability and protection of waterways will certainly be trickier, in part because it may prove difficult to determine where the goalpost is. What level of protection would be enough, or is it even possible to adequately guard against landslides and erosion on steep grades? If the problem areas are more clearly defined, will that only serve to ramp up the obstacles to any development there? No one knows yet.

The good news for ski area supporters is that the court did not rule in either the Pacific fisher or the soil issue that the expansion would cause harm. It ruled only that the studies of the issues had not been adequate to answer questions in those areas.

The Mount Ashland Association, after a meeting with the Forest Service, believes it can come up with those questions and that it could return to the court with those answers in six months to a year. Given the professional stalling tactics they are likely to encounter from the opposition and the Forest Service's usual cautious approach (born out of experience), that timeline may be a bit optimistic.

It may also be optimistic to think the association can prevail. But this is a common-sense issue and one can only hope that the judges will eventually see that and recognize the ski area and the Forest Service have bent over backwards in preparing a plan that will have little negative impact on the land and a tremendous positive impact on recreational opportunities in Southern Oregon.

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