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Ski area battle isn't over yet

Numerous concessions in the final plans still won't satisfy the critics

So, at last, the Mount Ashland debate is behind us. With the Forest Service's ruling in favor of expansion, we can put the acrimonious debate behind us, strap on our skis and feel the rush of clean crisp air as we glide down the ...

Wake up, wake up, you're dreaming. Reality awaits, and it may not be a pretty thing. More wild claims in public hearings, more fear-mongering, more appeals and, sadly, more lawsuits likely lie between today and the ultimate resolution.

Yes, the Mount Ashland ski area has cleared a major hurdle. But, no, the expansion is not a done deal. While Monday's announcement of plans to expand the area is the next step in the process, the players on both sides will determine if we get a dream or a nightmare in the coming years.

The Forest Service plans call for the addition of 71 acres of ski slopes, one new major lift, three minor lifts or rope tows, an additional small lodge and expanded parking. It would allow a doubling in size of the base lodge, which is now sadly lacking in space and amenities.

The effects on the mountain will be minimal. The 71 acres is about 0.5 percent of the watershed, while the 40 acres of the McDonald Peak roadless area that will be entered represents about 0.4 percent of the 9,459-acre roadless area.

The plan worked and reworked by the Forest Service, the ski area and other interested parties takes great pains to minimize impact in areas of concern, including rare plants high on the mountain, a grove of Engelmann spruce (about 30 out of 2,000 trees would be cut), wetlands, and a creek crossing.

— Neither does this plan create a monster recreation area. Mount Ashland will end up with 196 acres of skiable terrain, which is about 5 percent of the size of Mount Bachelor near Bend.

The process in reaching this point has been long and painful. In 1991, the ski area was granted permission to expand, but the devil was in the details. After seven years, a plan half the size of the original proposal emerged, but the Forest Service required more specific analysis. Opposition emerged from some of the usual sources, who painted the idea as a rapacious land grab that would clearcut the mountain and leave its waters running muddy.

It is anything but that. Effects on the watershed, a major concern expressed by opponents, are negligible, in part because the ski area proponents have proposed to keep native vegetation, woody debris and even downed trees on the ski slopes to reduce erosion. A bridge over a creek has been modified to avoid digging footings or disturbing the soil next to the creek. Similar care was taken in dealing with other environmental issues.

But we are kidding ourselves if we think the opponents will recognize the many, many concessions made in the plan and the many benefits it provides. The Forest Service decision is already being painted as an attack on the livability of Southern Oregon.

In fact, the decision is a step toward improving the livability of Southern Oregon, by providing more outdoor recreation experiences for area residents, improving a valuable resource that is already used by tens of thousands of Oregonians and by utilizing that resource with a light touch on the environment.

There are those whose beliefs will not allow any compromise, regardless of benefits to the entire community and regardless of the compromises made by the other side. They have voiced their opposition to the expansion and undoubtedly will continue to do so, but their arguments will have the hollow ring of ideologues.

The Mount Ashland expansion may have a few more hurdles to clear, but it has now passed the toughest test. Those involved with moving the plan through its final stages should act quickly to adopt the proposals and bring this long drama to a sensible conclusion.