Posted tagged ‘Mount Hood Ski Bowl’

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 1

February 9, 2014
Mount Hood Meadows is seeking yet another overflow parking lot for the resort, its fourth, bringing the resort capacity over 3,500 vehicles

Mount Hood Meadows is seeking yet another overflow parking lot for the resort, its fourth, bringing the resort capacity over 3,500 vehicles

On January 13, the Mount Hood National Forest (MHNF) issued its final environmental assessment for yet another sprawling parking lot at the Mount Hood Meadows ski resort. This is the just the latest decision over nearly 50 years of always finding a way to say “yes” to the private permit holders who operate the Meadows resort on our public lands.

According to MHNF documents, the proposed new “Twilight” lot will require 9.4 acres of subalpine forest adjacent to the popular Elk Meadows Trailhead to be logged, then paved over by the Meadows resort, allowing for 878 new parking spaces on a new 7.2 acre asphalt lot. Translated to urban scale, that’s another seven full Portland blocks of forest that will be replaced with paving simply to meet peak winter weekend demand.

Meadows parking lots are mostly empty outside of a few weekend peaks from December through February. This photo was taken on a sunny Saturday in March, 2009 at the huge Hood River Meadows lot. The tiny structure on the right is the Nordic Ski Center, for scale. Only about a third of the sprawling lot can be seen in this photo

Meadows parking lots are mostly empty outside of a few weekend peaks from December through February. This photo was taken on a sunny Saturday in March, 2009 at the huge Hood River Meadows lot. The tiny structure on the right is the Nordic Ski Center, for scale. Only about a third of the sprawling lot can be seen in this photo

Using Forest Service data, the Twilight proposal translates into roughly 7,500 noble fir, mountain hemlock, Lodgepole pine and other subalpine conifers being cut to bring the overall parking capacity for the Meadows resort to a whopping 3,526 vehicles.

How much parking is this? For comparison, a typical Walmart Supercenter has about 800 parking spaces — which means the total Meadows parking capacity could accommodate four Walmart Supercenters. Another comparison: the new Meadows parking total will be slightly more than the 3,300 spaces Portland International Airport (PDX) provides in its newly expanded day parking structure at the main terminal (see an earlier article on this blog for more details on the Twilight proposal).

Meadows also plans to move its Nordic Center — currently a non-descript modular building located at the back of the sprawling Hood River Meadows lot — to the new Twilight Lot in an effort to better compete with the non-profit Teacup Lake Nordic Club, located across the Loop Highway.

The humble Meadows Nordic Center is overshadowed by the very popular Teacup Lake Nordic Club facilities located across the highway

The humble Meadows Nordic Center is overshadowed by the very popular Teacup Lake Nordic Club facilities located across the highway

Is this latest expansion justified? Not if you dig into the details. The folly in the MHNF decision is that it is based on an outdated special permit granted in 1997 by the Forest Service that gives the Meadows Resort their legal ability to operate a private business on national forest land.

But it turns out that almost no current data on the future of the ski industry supports this decision — including data from the ski resort industry, itself. Instead, this proposal is mostly about the Meadows resort attempting to buck the national trends by drawing skiers and boarders away from competing resorts at Timberline and Mount Hood Ski Bowl.

While this strategy might make sense for Mount Hood Meadows, Inc., it hardly makes sense as public land policy, and especially for taxpayers who subsidize the ski resorts.

The Meadows for-profit Nordic trail system has struggled to compete with the nearby Teacup Lake Nordic Club's larger and more affordable system

The Meadows for-profit Nordic trail system has struggled to compete with the nearby Teacup Lake Nordic Club’s larger and more affordable system

The recent Forest Service decision giving the green light to the Twilight parking expansion also fails to consider the most obvious solution: requiring Meadows to spread out their customer demand with peak ticket pricing. This is the simplest way to avoid overbuilding parking lots and overburdening the Loop Highway, and would make the best use of the Meadows resort capital investment and operations costs.

So, why is Meadows opting for a more costly option to addressing peak ski weekend demand? Read on…

Past is Prologue! (…except when it isn’t…)

For more than a century, ski resorts across the country have long promoted the inevitability of their rapid growth as part of the advertising pitch, and yet they have a troubling secret in common: snow sports that were once growing exponentially in popularity are now flat or declining, nationally. And this trend has continued for decades.

Instead, most of the touted “growth” at major resorts in the past 30 years has come through consolidation. At the beginning of the 1980’s, there were some 727 ski resorts in operation, nationwide, yet only 480 ski areas survive today. This represents a decline of 33 percent, despite a hefty 36 percent increase in the U.S. population for the same period.

Beautiful Umbrella Falls was barely spared by the original Meadows parking lot (just a few yards beyond the trees at the top of the falls), though it still carries the burden of being in a ski area: trash and blown gravel fill the stream after the snow melts

Beautiful Umbrella Falls was barely spared by the original Meadows parking lot (just a few yards beyond the trees at the top of the falls), though it still carries the burden of being in a ski area: trash and blown gravel fill the stream after the snow melts

This decline also helps explain why all three major resorts on Mount Hood are looking to develop other attractions under their public lands permits to help sell lift tickets — most recently, the proposed bicycle play park at Timberline (Ski Bowl has already developed one that it now plans to expand).

Why the decline? A variety of factors are at work, not the least of which are the effects of climate change on snowpack and the ballooning price tag that has increasingly made skiing a sport for the affluent.

In study last year, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) reported that 54 percent of day visits came from households earning more than $100,000, a 12.5 percent increase among affluent skiers from just five years ago. Conversely, visits from households earning less than $100,000 dropped from 52 percent to 46 percent, an 11.5 percent drop for less affluent skiers over the same period.

This trend is not surprising when you consider that an annual pass at Meadows costs around $800 and day passes cost $74 for an adult ticket — and these are relatively affordable prices compared to premier Rocky Mountain and California resorts. Add the costs of gas and equipment, and it can cost a family hundreds of dollars to spend a day skiing on Mount Hood.

This chart shows the relatively flat trend in total U.S. ski visits from 2002 to 2012, and an abrupt dip in 2011-12 reflecting the fourth warmest winter since 1896 (Source: NSAA)

This chart shows the relatively flat trend in total U.S. ski visits from 2002 to 2012, and an abrupt dip in 2011-12 reflecting the fourth warmest winter since 1896 (Source: NSAA)

In 2008, the NSAA produced a study that had more ominous implications for the industry: they found that 85% of beginners who try skiing soon drop out of the sport, translating into only a 15% rate of “conversion” from beginner to regular skiing and snowboarding customers.

In response to this troubling finding, the industry adopted dual goals of (a) improving the total number of people trying the sport by 6 percent and (b) increasing the “conversion” rate from beginner to regular visitor by 1 percent per year. Despite industry efforts to meet these targets, in the six years since these goals were established the rate of new skiers staying with the sport has only increased by only 1 percent, far short of the retention target.

But there is even worse news in the NSAA findings: it turns out the existing base of regular skiers and boarders have also shown a decline in interest, with the rate of repeat resort visits from this core group decreasing by 6 percent since the industry targets were set in 2008.

This chart shows high-stakes future for skiing in the U.S., with the optimistic NSAAs growth strategy in blue and grim reality of current trends in participation in red (Source: NSAA)

This chart shows high-stakes future for skiing in the U.S., with the optimistic NSAAs growth strategy in blue and grim reality of current trends in participation in red (Source: NSAA)

While the resorts continue to fight the overall drop in visitors, they are also battling the elements. Climate change is producing an increasingly erratic snowpack across the country, but especially in the West, where resorts are largely built with special permits on public lands. Larger resorts are spending as much as $50k apiece for snow guns to create their own snow — with some resorts installing hundreds of snow guns to ensure a ski season.

Skiers were already overflowing the Timberline parking lot in 1939, just two years after the lodge opened

Skiers were already overflowing the Timberline parking lot in 1939, just two years after the lodge opened

With the obvious environmental implications of snow making aside — and they are significant — the added cost burden for the resorts will only increase the price of skiing when the costs of snow making equipment, water and the energy needed to pump water uphill are passed along to skiers.

Given these discouraging national trends, are there better solutions to meeting peak ski resort demand at Mount Hood other than to continue paving over the alpine landscape?

This question will be the focus of Part 2 this article, and a new effort by the Oregon Department of Transportation to better manage traffic on the Loop Highway.

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Author’s Note: lest readers think I’m anti-skiing, I am decidedly not. I grew up skiing at Mount Hood from the age of six, and skied at all four resorts on the mountain well into the 1990s, when I shifted to snowshoeing and Nordic skiing. I love the sport, and hope that Mount Hood will always have alpine skiing. But over the past few decades, I have watched the Meadows and Timberline resorts grow too large to be environmentally sustainable.

The Heather Canyon lift at Meadows was the wake-up call for me in the 1990s — and before that, the Palmer Lift at Timberline. Both were a notch too far in what — in my view — had been a reasonably sustainable balance between ski development and protecting the natural landscape of Mount Hood.

The author (center, at the tender age of 11) on a memorable 1973 ski vacation near Innsbruck, Austria with my family

The author (center, at the tender age of 11) on a memorable 1973 ski vacation near Innsbruck, Austria with my family

I also see the current model for commercial ski resorts failing, and worry that the grasping for quick solutions to balance the corporate books is out of sync with what could be sustainable, positive ways to diversity the resort offerings.

Watch for future WyEast Blog articles on this subject, as I not only believe that ski resorts can (and must be, in Mount Hood’s case) continue to operate within a National Park, I also think they could set the standard for environmental and economic sustainability that other resorts might learn from.

Timberline Lodge Bike Proposal

July 27, 2010

Post Canyon free ride circuit near Hood River (The Oregonian)

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?

This clip shows a portion of the maze of proposed bike play trails

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

The proposal includes another “skills park” on Mount Hood, duplicating Ski Bowl

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.

Mount Hood Ski Bowl already provides lift-assisted bike trails and a skills park

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.

Ski Bowl just added a free ride park in 2009 -- are we witnessing an arms race between the resorts?

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.

Another Way

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.

The proposed Blue Ridge Highlands bicycle network

(click here to view a larger map)

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.

Teacup Lake Nordic Club developed their groomed trail network in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service

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.
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Addendum: Read Dennis Chaney’s Op-Ed on the proposal (PDF)