The Mount Ashland ski area faces some tough decisions in the wake of a federal appeals court ruling blocking its expansion plan.

The Mount Ashland ski area faces some tough decisions in the wake of a federal appeals court ruling blocking its expansion plan.

Ski area managers will have to decide whether to ask the Forest Service to correct errors in its environmental review and press on with their expansion plan or seek a more modest expansion that would be more acceptable to the environmental groups that prevailed in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"We have to look at everything," said Rick Saul, the ski area's marketing director.

Saul said the nonprofit ski area's board of directors will meet as soon as possible — possibly this week — to review the judges' opinion and consider their options.

"That's going to be a very interesting conversation," Saul said.

The court's decision does not necessarily terminate the expansion, but continuing could be expensive and time-consuming, said Scott Kaden, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association. Kaden said the Northwest Forest Plan and other federal forest laws complicate expansion for ski areas such as Mount Ashland that are on federal land, but the process is not insurmountable.

"What happens now is the Forest Service has to correct the deficiencies in (complying with) the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act," he said.

Revising the environmental review would take at least a year, and the new documents could still be subject to court challenges. Environmental activists who have opposed the expansion say the ski area would be better served to work with them to create a more modest expansion that wouldn't be challenged in court.

Some see a "community alternative" proposal originally introduced in 2002 as a possible solution. That proposal, includes building a new chairlift but avoids building new runs in sensitive wetlands.

"I'd like to see the Mount Ashland Association come back to the table with season pass holders, skiers and snowboarders and members of the community who came up with that compromise," said Derek Volkart of Ashland.

Abandoning the current expansion plan rankles some expansion supporters such as Pat Acklin, a former Mount Ashland Association board member. Acklin said the expansion plan has been altered many times to meet environmental concerns since it first surfaced in 1998.

"I don't think they should scrap the plan," Acklin said. "So much money has been spent and so much time. If the Forest Service can correct the deficiencies I think they should."

Whether those deficiencies can be corrected without major modification of the expansion plan is open to question. Some of the proposed new ski trails go through wetlands that have been identified as having landslide potential and, under the Northwest Forest Plan, such areas are supposed to be preserved.

In its written opinion, the court took the Forest Service to task for its failure to protect those wetlands. Some trails would have to be moved or abandoned to comply with the court's directive to protect wetlands.

"They can't move the landslide hazard areas," said Marianne Dugan, attorney for the environmental groups that won the appeal, in an interview with The Associated Press. "They have to move the project."

Jay Lininger, another opponent of the expansion, said he and many others who opposed the Mount Ashland Association's plan still want to see improvements at the ski area.

"There's no question we need to move forward," said Lininger, who now heads the Cascadia Wildlands Project in Eugene. "My sense is the ski area needs to be improved, and there are many improvements to do that will meet the need for more low-skill-level terrain and help improve its aging infrastructure."

Ski area managers may have to decide whether an expansion that won't draw a court challenge would be worth the cost, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association.

"It's a question of where you dedicate your limited resources," Berry said. "They're a community-owned non-profit ski area. There's got to be some soul-searching going on right now. They're an important asset for the community. They need to sit down and decide what their role's going to be in the future."

Deciding what's next will take compromise on both sides, said Ron Roth of Ashland, a former member of the Mount Ashland Association board. He would like to see ski area managers and environmental groups and the city of Ashland sit down with a facilitator and work out a compromise.

"If the federal court says we can't cross wetlands, OK, we can't cross wetlands. Let's talk about other alternatives."

The worst prospect would be a continued impasse that might eventually jeopardize the ski area's long-term viability, said Acklin, the former board member.

"We all have to be careful here," she said, "or we will be a place that had a ski area."

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