The Timberline Resort is proposing to build 15 miles of downhill-only bicycle play trails along their lower ski slopes, below the main lodge parking area. The trails will require clearing mountain vegetation, including alpine trees up to half-a-foot in diameter, and building a series of jumps and ramps for bikes. The “downhill only” design relies on chairlifts to carry bikers back up the mountain, and is presumably aimed at younger cyclists.
You don’t have to be against mountain bikes to be skeptical about the Timberline Ski Resort proposal to build 15 miles of bike trails on the slopes below Timberline Lodge. You simply have to wonder why here? Why now?
Comments on the scoping phase of this proposal are due soon (July 30), so now is the time to weigh in. This article covers some of the questions the Forest Service should be addressing in their review of this proposal.
A solution looking for a problem?
The Forest Service scoping letter states “Oregon is considered the mountain biking capital of the Northwest and more people per capita have bicycles in Portland than any other city in the country. However, there are few Oregon ski areas that offer full-service, lift-assisted mountain biking for all ability levels.”
This is one of those leading-the-witness statements that you might expect to hear from the Timberline Resort, as the profit-seeking concessionaire, not from the Forest Service — who we might expect to be the cautious guardian of our mountain.
Oregon may be the mountain biking capital, and there are surely a lot of Portlanders with mountain bikes, but it’s a leap to assume that Portland’s cyclist are lacking for ski-lift-assisted bike playground. So, the first scoping question for the Forest Service:
1. What is the national demand for ski-lift-assisted bike trails? What is the demand in Oregon? What is the demand at Mount Hood?
If the Forest Service cannot demonstrate unmet demand for ski-lift-assisted bike trails, then this proposal should be denied.
It’s really about lift tickets, not bikes
So, why the sudden interest in building more bike play trails on Mount Hood?
The answer is fairly simple: the Timberline Resort is looking to sell more summer lift tickets, bike rentals, concessions and hotel reservations. That’s pretty much it. Right now, the Timberline operators can look down from the hotel balcony in summer, and see the lifts at Mount Hood Ski Bowl carrying bikers up the slopes of Multorpor and Tom Dick and Harry Mountain. Who can blame them for wanting to steal some of that business?
But this raises another series of questions for the scoping:
2. Would the Timberline proposal cannibalize the Mount Hood Ski Bowl bike operations? Would this, in turn, jeopardize the viability of the Ski Bowl resort, which has no Palmer Lift and summer skiing to round out its winter profits?
Given that Timberline has a summer skiing program, Mount Hood Ski Bowl should be given priority in meeting whatever demand exists for ski-life-assisted bike trails. If excess demand doesn’t exist, the Timberline proposal should be denied.
Authorized vs. Unauthorized Damage?
The Forest Service scoping letter states “because of limited managed mountain biking areas on public land the Forest Service is seeing an increase in unauthorized free-ride mountain biking areas. These illegally constructed trails are creating resource damage as they appear throughout Oregon’s public lands.”
This raises another question for the project scoping:
3. Where is “resource damage” resulting from mountain biking? What sort of damage is being done? How have mountain bikes been identified as the source of the damage?
The scope letter also states “a managed, well designed, downhill-only, mountain bike trail system and skills park in Northwestern Oregon would provide an opportunity for safe, managed mountain biking and reduce unauthorized mountain biking and thereby could reduce associated resource damage on public lands.”
Another case of leading the witness — in this instance, a leap from rogue mountain bikers building illegal trails to those seeking “well designed, downhill only” trails with a “skills park”, which just happens to be what the Timberline resort wants to build on our public land. This statement fits the old adage “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Ironically, on mountain bike trails elsewhere in the Mount Hood National Forest, downhill riding is prohibited in order to “prevent erosion”, according to the Forest Service trail signage. Does this suggest that the “downhill-only” trails proposed by Timberline will be inherently erosion-prone?
This issue raises still more scoping questions:
4. How is “downhill-only” bike demand measured, as opposed to the demand for bicycle trails, in general? How would the “authorized” construction of 15 miles of downhill-only bicycle trails at the Timberline resort compare with the “unauthorized” areas in terms of tree removal and trail construction?
If the Forest Service analysis shows that forest ecosystems in the fragile alpine areas around Timberline are more vulnerable to erosion than other areas, or that “downhill-only” bicycle travel increases erosion risk, the Timberline proposal should be denied.
You’re on my land!
One of the more troubling aspects of any proposal coming from the Mount Hood area ski resorts is their attitude of entitlement toward use of public land. Not surprisingly, few among the public are aware that the resorts exist wholly on public land, leased from the U.S. Forest Service.
As such, every expansion proposal should be viewed with skepticism, since they generally represent another slice of natural ecosystem being carved away — as the Timberline proposal does.
Putting the relationship in urban terms, consider how the public would react if a private, for-profit enterprise proposed a fee-based play area within a city park, maybe starting with small corner, then coming back every few years, asking to fence off a bit more of the lawn in order to stay profitable. At what point is it the obligation of the public to ensure profitability?
Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service has a developed a bias toward the “viability” argument, and has a history of ceding more public land to the resorts under the rationale of keeping them in business. This is a very slippery slope, and only leads to more development on the mountain. In this case, it raises another question for the scoping phase of the proposal:
5. What is the financial argument for this proposal from the Timberline resort? Is the resort suffering financial losses during the summer (or winter) months that this proposal is intended to stem?
If the Forest Service finds that the proposal is primarily driven primarily by private financial interests, not measurable public demand, the proposal should be denied.
The Mount Hood National Park Campaign proposes hundreds of miles of new mountain biking trails, many from converted logging road that provide an exceptional opportunity to expand the bike network (click here to view the maps).
Instead of relying on chairlifts and lift tickets, the Campaign proposals focus networks of overlapping loops, with lots of possibilities for varied terrain to create an exciting, healthy cycling experience. The proposals are designed to meet different skill levels and be easily accessed from nearby communities. Most importantly, they are designed to place mountain biking within financial reach of a broad range of income levels — something the ski resorts don’t pretend to do.
Note that there are no “skill parks” in the Mount Hood National Park proposals, as they don’t really belong in a national forest, much less a national park. But there are plenty of state and private land opportunities for developing skill parks in the area, and of course, we already have a fee-based concession at the Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort.
Besides, if the economic model for Timberline involves charging cyclists to pay for access to a skill park, why not let the free market provide this on private land under a similar fee system, in closer proximity to Portland, and away from sensitive alpine terrain?
A better alternative in the near term for addressing the “unauthorized” trails issue is to work with an advocacy group, like the Columbia Area Mountain Bike Associates (CAMBA), to develop a low-or-no-fee extreme biking/play park area on less sensitive land closer to Portland.
One such site already exists by permission on private, state and county-owned land in the Post Canyon area, near Hood River, and another known as Black Rock, near Falls City. These sites were developed largely with private donations of time, labor and materials, and there’s no reason why other similar areas couldn’t be developed outside the national forest to meet whatever demand might exist.
The Forest Service scoping letter states “further development of this area is supported by existing infrastructures such as parking lots, restrooms and signage.” If these are the principal arguments for further commercialization of the fragile mountain ecosystem, then it’s obvious that signs, a parking area and restroom at some other site could be built, perhaps entirely with private funds.
A perfect model for this alternative approach already exists: the non-profit Teacup Lake Nordic Club cabin and ski trail complex, near Bennett Pass. This fine destination provides an affordable alternative to the nearby Mount Hood Meadows commercial venue, with club members asked to make a modest donation in order to use the extensive ski trail complex.
A similar approach could be used to provide more services at sites like Post Canyon or Black Rock, and this leads to the final question that the Forest Service should address during this scoping phase:
6. What opportunities exist for the Forest Service to work with non-profit and community organizations to provide free-ride bike parks on less sensitive lands than the alpine areas below Timberline Lodge?
If there are community partners out there with an interest in pursuing a more affordable, sustainable alternative to a lift-based bike park (including private, state and county land owners) then the the Timberline proposal should be denied.
You can find more on how to comment at the Mount Hood National Forest site: Timberline Mountain Bike Proposal. If you don’t make the requested July 30 deadline, don’t be afraid to submit your comments late. The Forest Service will continue to accept them because, after all, YOU own the land.
Addendum: Read Dennis Chaney’s Op-Ed on the proposal (PDF)