The U.S. District Court on Friday lifted an injunction blocking expansion of the Mt. Ashland Ski Area. Judge Owen Panner in Medford concluded the U.S. Forest Service — the defendant in the case — had corrected all environmental violations identified in an earlier Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, and Panner denied a supplemental complaint by the plaintiffs.
Opponents of the expansion say they intend to appeal Friday's decision back to the 9th Circuit.
Agency and ski area officials reacted with relief Friday following the latest legal decision in an ongoing battle over the expansion that stretches back more than two decades.
"We're very pleased with the decision," said Donna Mickley, acting supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "It validates all the hard work we've put into this process."
Kim Clark, the ski area's general manager, agreed.
"We hope this puts an end to this part of the debate," he said. "This proves the Forest Service did a great job on the science. Now that the injunction has been dissolved, we want to move forward."
But agency and ski area officials cautioned that their attorneys have yet to go through every aspect of the 18-page decision.
The attorneys for the plaintiffs will also be studying the document, said Tom Dimitre, chairman of the Rogue Group Sierra Club. The other plaintiffs include the Ashland-based Geos Institute and Oregon Wild.
"We intend to appeal," said Dimitre, an attorney. "We think clearly that the Forest Service did not comply with the directive of the 9th Circuit. We think Panner erred."
The plaintiffs will go back to Panner to ask for a stay pending an appeal to the higher court, he said.
The expansion calls for 71 acres of new ski runs, two additional chairlifts, three buildings, an expanded parking area, a tubing facility and other improvements. The expansion of the ski area in the forest's Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District would require removing trees in the expanded area.
The first and most significant phase of the expansion would cost about $3.5 million and include new chair lifts and runs, ski area officials said. They have stressed the ski area will not take on debt to finance an expansion.
In its 2007 ruling, the appeals court directed the federal court in Medford to keep an injunction in place until the agency addressed violations of environmental laws the higher court had concluded the federal agency committed in its analysis of the expansion proposal.
Since then, the Forest Service addressed the issues by taking steps that include more studies of how the expansion could impact the Pacific fisher, a weasel-like animal with habitat in the expansion area.
The plaintiffs later filed a supplemental claim that the Forest Service hadn't analyzed a range of important issues, including climate change impacts on the expansion and the economic feasibility of the plan given current economic conditions.
Even if there are no more legal blockades, physical work on the expansion is a long ways off, Mickley said.
"We still have a lot of different steps we need to go through," she said. "They need to submit a proposal that we will then review. And we need to ensure they have the financial means before they move forward on the first phase."
The amount depends on what the plans call for, she said.
"There is still a lot to do — this is not something where they would go to work tomorrow," she said.
Meanwhile, Eric Navickas, an Ashland resident and environmental activist opposed to the expansion, said there would be an on-the-ground protest if the expansion does move forward.
"Most definitely," he said. "We're not going to look the other way while they fall trees in our municipal watershed."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.