The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has stopped the Mount Ashland ski area's expansion in its tracks.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has stopped the Mount Ashland ski area's expansion in its tracks.

A three-judge panel ruled that the U.S. Forest Service failed to evaluate how the expansion would affect the Pacific fisher, a dark brown weasel with a bushy tail. The judges also found that the Forest Service failed to protect wetlands and streams in the expansion area.

The Forest Service was responsible for reviewing the expansion plan because the ski area lies on federal forest land. Three environmental groups challenged the expansion in federal court and sued the Forest Service, claiming its environmental review was flawed.

"We're very happy that the court has recognized these two important legal issues," said Doug Heiken, of Oregon Wild (formerly Oregon Natural Resources Council), which sued the Forest Service along with the Rogue Group, Sierra Club and the Ashland-based National Center for Conservation Science and Policy.

The ruling is a setback in efforts to expand the publicly owned ski area that date back to the early 1990s. The nonprofit Mt. Ashland Association wants to add 16 new ski trails, two chairlifts and about 200 parking spaces to the ski area near the summit of 7,500-foot Mount Ashland.

Rick Saul, the ski area's marketing director, said ski area managers and their attorneys will have to study the judges' opinion before deciding how to proceed.

"Our attorneys are reviewing the opinion and interpreting the ramifications of the opinion, and we'll make a determination on our future plans as soon as we get together with our staff and our attorneys," Saul said Monday.

The court reversed the opinion of U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner, who ruled for the Forest Service in 2006, and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to enjoin the Mount Ashland expansion until the Forest Service corrects violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act.

The judges said the Forest Service erred when it decided that it did not have to study the project's impact on the Pacific fisher because the expansion area was small.

"We cannot excuse the Forest Service from the NEPA requirement to include an adequate cumulative impact analysis...," Judge Milan D. Smith wrote.

The judges also took the Forest Service to task for failing to protect wetlands within the project area in violation of federal forest laws, including the Northwest Forest Plan.

The judges' opinion requires the Forest Service to study the project's impact on the fisher and take measures to preserve wetlands and streams before any expansion may proceed. How those requirements might affect the expansion proposal was not clear Monday.

"We don't know yet if we will have to do more studies or whether the opinion will have more permanent effects," said Saul, the ski area's marketing director.

One possible alternative would be for the Forest Service to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement on the fisher, a project which could take at least a year. Resolving the wetlands issue could be more complicated. Some of the proposed new runs might have to be re-routed to avoid sensitive riparian areas.

Representatives of the environmental groups that opposed the expansion said they hoped the court's ruling would encourage the Mount Ashland Association to work with them to develop a more modest expansion plan that does not encroach on wetlands in the Middle Branch of Ashland Creek.

"We've said for 10 years that we would like to sit down with the Mount Ashland folks," said Tom Dimitre, of the Rogue Group, Sierra Club.

"They've been very determined to expand into the Middle Branch," Dimitre said. "Hopefully the court's opinion is a signal that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to do that."

Bob Matthews of Medford, a longtime supporter of the expansion, said he was "not surprised, but disappointed" by the ruling. Matthews noted that many Ninth Circuit judges have been strong supporters of environmental laws.

Matthews, who owns Rogue Ski Shop, said continuing the effort to expand the ski area could be expensive. The ski area already has spent about $2 million on the expansion-related matters, including construction of a new sewage treatment plant, expansion planning and legal fees.

Matthews said the ski area will be hard-pressed to compete with other areas if it does not provide more intermediate terrain for beginning and intermediate skiers and snowboarders, but there are many other aspects of the ski area that need to be improved as well, such as the lodge.

"If they don't do those things, they can't compete," he said. "Skiers may choose to go to other areas."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail:bkettler@mailtribune.com