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Money shortage stymies ski area expansion

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has lifted an injunction that blocked expansion of the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, but the ski area doesn't have funding to expand.

"Before any improvements occur, we have to have funds in the bank," said Mt. Ashland Association board secretary Alan DeBoer. "We do not have funding, and we haven't started a fundraising drive."

In a ruling filed May 23, the appeals court reaffirmed a lower court's lifting of the injunction. Oregon Wild and the Sierra Club had filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and the Mt. Ashland Association to block the expansion.

The financially beleaguered ski area was unable to open this past winter because of a lack of snow. It has taken out a $750,000 lifeline loan from the Small Business Administration and is in the midst of a reorganization.

"Nothing will happen for at least two or three years unless someone said, 'Here's $3.5 million,' " said DeBoer, referring to the estimated amount of money it would take to carry out the first and most significant phase of the expansion, which would add new ski runs.

Tom Dimitre, who has acted as spokesman for the Sierra Club in the past, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Former Ashland city councilor and expansion opponent Eric Navickas, who was not a party in the case, said the court's lifting of the injunction should give pause to anyone who wants to donate to the cash-strapped ski area but opposes expansion.

"This shows the project is continuing to move forward. Anyone who believes this recent season has stopped the expansion should think twice," Navickas said. "This is a warning to people contributing money that the ski area will continue to incur litigation costs and expansion costs."

DeBoer said the ski area is incurring litigation costs because groups continue to file never-ending lawsuits.

"I don't know if there's ever an end to it. It's an abuse of the court system," he said.

A local law firm has donated 50 hours of legal work to the ski area, DeBoer said.

In late 2012, the Sierra Club, Oregon Wild and the Center for Biological Diversity filed another lawsuit saying the ski expansion analysis didn't take into consideration factors such as climate change reducing snowpack and cumulative impacts to the Ashland watershed from the proposed expansion and ongoing wildfire fuels thinning work.

After U.S. District Judge Owen Panner ruled against the conservation groups, they appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Center for Biological Diversity Senior Scientist Jay Lininger said he doesn't know when a ruling could come on the appeal for that case.

Navickas has a case on appeal challenging the ski area's work to expand its parking lot and use the dirt to make a bunny hill slope less steep.

The bunny hill work is done, while the parking lot — which was expanded last fall — needs to be paved this summer.

Those two projects plus existing ski run widening carried out last summer will cost an estimated $434,000 — far more than the ski area's original estimate of $250,000 for the work.

The ski area is continuing to raise funds to cover those costs and has raised $281,427, according to the most recent update on its website.

DeBoer said if the ski area doesn't expand and add more runs to attract beginning skiers, it will have to raise $200,000 every year.

He said if people make donations to the ski area, they can specify how they want the money spent.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.