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Wednesday, December 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bigger, better Snoqualmie envisioned

Seattle Times staff reporter

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For more information or to comment: www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs/projects/summit-at-snoqualmie/index.shtml

Seattle's backyard ski area could grow by a third in the next several years, with more lifts, more terrain, three times more restaurant seating and better parking.

Expansion proposed for the Summit at Snoqualmie, with its four adjacent ski areas, could accommodate a third more visitors and make it easier for skiers and snowboarders to traverse the resort, according to plans that have been endorsed by the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Before the changes could occur, however, the private ski area would have to buy 400 acres of wildlife-rich private timberland next door and donate it to the government to link the forests of the south Cascades with those to the north of Interstate 90.

Some expansion plans "go through one of the largest and last remaining pieces of old-growth forest in that north-south corridor," said Sonny Paz, a wildlife biologist for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie forest who reviewed the ski area's plans. "Over time, the land donation should mitigate the loss of the habitat that the ski area's trying to develop."

The Forest Service has been evaluating expansion plans for the Summit, portions of which have served skiers since the early 1930s , for six years. The agency's draft review of those plans was released last week.

But the proposal comes as scientists increasingly have been suggesting that the future of midelevation ski areas such as Snoqualmie Summit may hinge on the weather.

A recent study by the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group indicated that even with an average temperature increase of just a few degrees, snow levels at Snoqualmie Pass would rise 500 feet. The group's computer models show that the length of an average ski season could decline 28 percent in the next 20 years.

Those predictions aren't lost on the ski industry.

"Certainly we're all sort of looking at issues that relate to global warming," said Tim Beck, executive vice president for planning for Booth Creek Resorts, which owns the Summit. "We all recognize there are things happening out there we have to be aware of."

But Beck said those possibilities have not factored into planning at the Summit.

"It's sort of like farming," Beck said. "Every year the weather is different. But I've been involved with the Summit for eight years, and most of the time we've had pretty good snow."

For now, Summit managers want to better control the flow of people among the four areas — Summit West, Summit Central, Summit East and Alpental.

They're proposing two new chairlifts through a heavily wooded section of the Central and East summits. They also want to connect the two areas with steeper cat trails so snowboarders, who tend to avoid traversing flat ground, can better access both summits.

Because that section is thick with old-growth, the Forest Service has "urged them to reduce development to gladed runs, which are more difficult to groom, but leaves more trees standing," said Larry Donovan, who led the review for the Forest Service.

No northern spotted owls — now protected under the Endangered Species Act — have been spotted in that area in years, but Paz said he still thinks the birds may hunt there.

The resort already has made arrangements with Plum Creek Timber to buy and donate forestland near the resort to replace the loss of those trees if plans are approved, he said.

The Summit also would consolidate facilities at the bases of the Central and West summits, offering an additional 10 acres of parking and 2,800 more restaurant seats, and making 140 more acres available for night skiing.

The proposal also would add two more chairlifts to Alpental, allowing expert skiers to stay higher on the mountain. And it would open more terrain there to intermediate skiing.

The public may comment on the proposal until mid-February.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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