Logging on Mount Ashland to clear new ski runs could begin as soon as September following the U.S. Forest Service's announcement Tuesday it has approved the ski area's plans to expand.

Logging on Mount Ashland to clear new ski runs could begin as soon as September following the U.S. Forest Service's announcement Tuesday it has approved the ski area's plans to expand.

"We're extremely pleased," Mt. Ashland Ski Area General Manager Kim Clark said.

The Forest Service's announcement drew elation from ski area supporters but a warning from environmentalists that they would sue again to stop the expansion if the plan had not been substantially changed since their original lawsuit was filed in 2005.

Most of the new runs would be west and downhill of the existing ski area.

The Mt. Ashland Association, the nonprofit group that runs the ski area on Forest Service land, would need to raise about $300,000 to pay for ski run clearing, which could begin in mid-September, Clark said.

The first and most significant phase of the expansion would cost $3.5 million, he said. Clark said the Mt. Ashland Association board met Monday night and reaffirmed that the expansion will be paid for through fundraising.

"We will not take on any debt for the expansion," he said.

Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Service Supervisor Scott Conroy approved the ski area expansion — which includes 71 acres of new runs, two additional chairlifts, three buildings, an expanded parking lot and a snow tubing area — without substantial changes from the plan that had been the focus of litigation by the Rogue Group Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

The ski area currently has 200 acres of skiable terrain.

Forest Service officials said that a 45-day administrative appeals period will start once a legal notice of the decision is published in the Mail Tribune. Officials estimated the notice would appear in the newspaper on June 2.

The Forest Service's regional forester will then have 45 days to issue a decision on any appeal. If that official affirms the expansion approval, the project can move forward.

However, an appellant has the option to sue in court once the Forest Service's internal administrative appeals process is exhausted, agency officials said.

Mt. Ashland Association members said they are confident the expansion will move forward without further litigation.

But Rogue Group Sierra Club Chairman Tom Dimitre said the environmental group will sue if the Forest Service has not made changes to address issues of concern.

"We'll be back in court if there were no changes," Dimitre said.

Contacted on Tuesday, Dimitre said he had yet to review all the details of the Forest Service's decision.

The Ashland-based club and other environmental groups took their lawsuit to block the expansion all the way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 2007, that court ruled the Forest Service needed to conduct more analysis of potential negative environmental impacts.

After new studies, the Forest Service said the expansion would not have a negative impact on the Pacific fisher, a weasel-like animal, as environmentalists had claimed.

The Forest Service said the animals use lower elevation areas in the winter and can move through vegetated areas on the sides of ski runs during the summer.

The Forest Service redrew lines that mark out riparian and watershed areas that are affected by certain restrictions. But it did not change the areas that would be affected by the expansion, Forest Service officials said.

Dimitre said his group remains concerned about impacts to the Pacific fisher and opposes ski runs cutting through riparian reserves and landslide hazard zones.

Members also worry that climate change could leave the ski area without sufficient snow, especially on new ski runs built at lower elevations.

The Forest Service said the expansion would not harm Ashland's drinking water supply that originates in the Ashland Watershed. The ski area sits at the top of the watershed.

"With required mitigation measures such as those that control erosion and potential petrochemical pollutants, any effects to water quality will be low to not measurable," Forest Service officials wrote.

"Implementation of watershed restoration projects will enhance water quality over current conditions by enhancing watershed function. Water quality will continue to be monitored during and after implementation."

Forest Service officials agreed with Mt. Ashland Association members that the ski area needs more ski runs with gentle terrain for inexperienced skiers and snowboarders. The expansion will provide those types of runs, Forest Service officials said.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.