When Mount Hood Meadows Oregon, Ltd., the operator of the ski area, applied to the U.S. Forest Service in the spring of 1988 for a new Master Plan, the proposal was viewed with alarm by many people. In addition to new chair lifts and facilities, the proposal included:
– The development of over 1,500 units of overnight accommodation,
– a mountain restaurant near the Timberline trail,
– a change in the existing winter recreation designation to also allow summer activities,
– a 759 acre expansion of the permit area into the White River drainage.
It was at this time that Friends of Mount Hood was formed by concerned individuals opposed to the development advocated by the management of the Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Area. A primary concern was that the construction and year round operation of overnight accommodations would cause irreparable damage to the wetlands, streams, and fragile alpine meadows in the vicinity. Furthermore, the proposed expansion into the White River drainage was viewed as being inconsistent with the classification of the White River as a wild and scenic river.
In 1991 the Forest Service approved a Master Plan for the ski area that incorporated many of the elements proposed by Mount Hood Meadows. This was followed by an appeal of the decision to the Regional Forester by Friends of Mount Hood, other conservation groups, and individuals. The appeal was successful.
1997 Master Plan
However, the Forest Service approved a revised conceptual Master Plan in 1997 for the Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Area that again caused alarm among those concerned about protecting the natural alpine environment within the ski area. This plan authorized:
– a large increase in usage for both day and night skiing, new chair lifts and runs,
– a mountain restaurant capable of serving 1000 people at a time,
– summer usage including overnight lodging for ski camps,
– expansion of parking into sensitive riparian areas,
– a 96 acre addition to the permit area in the Hood River Meadows region.
Pursuantly, eight environmental groups led by Friends of Mount Hood filed a suit in the U.S. District Court of Oregon that challenged the Master Plan’s compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as well as a number of other federal laws. Included in the suit were claims under the Clean Water Act (CWA) against both the Forest Service and Mt. Hood Meadows, and a challenge to the Master Plan as inconsistent with the National Forest Management Act (NFMA).
The NFMA challenge was dismissed by the District Court as not ready for decision making, based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that was announced after the suit was filed. That new Supreme Court decision states that challenges for failure to comply with NFMA must wait until the plan at issue is being implemented.
The Clean Water Act claims were settled in February, 2000, with a District Court Consent Order. In that settlement Mount Hood Meadows agreed to undertake some wetland restoration to help compensate for their past destructive activities and to be bound to a more rigorous process for determining wetland impacts before conducting any further construction activities.
Wetland restoration has begun near the base of the Blue chairlift, and Meadows is working with an alpine wetland specialist to restore the the wetland between the lower terminals of the Blue and Mt. Hood Express chairlifts. This is an area where the original wetland was destroyed by fill material and the placement of streams in culverts when the lifts were constructed.
The CWA settlement also required Meadows to install stormwater control systems at the Main and Hood River Meadows parking lots. The purpose of these systems is to reduce the impacts on nearby streams and wetlands from siltation, gravel accumulation, and petroleum contamination due to snow removal and water run-off from the parking lots.
Prior to approving a new conceptual Master Plan in 1997, the Forest Service conducted and published a study of the environmental impacts of five plan alternatives in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement document and accepted public comments on the alternatives. This process was done to satisfy NEPA requirements. During the public comment period, Friends of Mount Hood proposed that the Forest Service consider an alternative plan that would rely on off-mountain parking with shuttle bus transportation to the ski area instead of constructing additional parking lots at the ski area. Prior construction of on-site parking lots had resulted in extensive environmental damage to riparian areas and wetlands.
In the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released in December, 1996, each of the alternatives presented for study included an increase in on-site parking at the ski area. The Master Plan approved by the Forest Service in January, 1997, contained conceptual approval for up to 8 acres of additional on-site parking, an increase of more than 35% in existing parking at the ski area.
On December 15, 2000, the District Court found the plaintiffs’ alternative that would rely on off-mountain parking was a viable but unexamined alternative that should have been included for study in the EIS in order to allow for a reasoned decision by the Forest Service in issuing a new master plan.
In the spring of 2001, the District Court entered a Permanent Injunction prohibiting the Forest Service and Mt. Hood Meadows from proceeding with any project at the ski area that has a direct material effect on parking facilities or that increases the presently approved parking load. Also, the Court directed the Forest Service to prepare a Supplemental Information Report (SIR) to address the plaintiffs’ alternative. In all other respects, the District Court approved the implementation of the 1997 Master Plan.
The Forest Service finally submitted the SIR to the District Court in the spring of 2005. The report examined the cost of several scenarios for transporting skiers by bus from a location in Portland to the ski area. In each scenario the on-site parking at the ski area was reduced by 3 or 6 acres from the maximum acreage for parking allowed prior to the 1997 Master Plan. Based on the study, the Forest Service concluded that the plaintiffs’ alternative of off-mountain parking was not reasonable and did not warrant detailed analysis in the EIS for the Master Plan. Friends of Mount Hood objected that the off-mountain parking alternative it had proposed was incorrectly characterized in the report as calling for off-site parking with a reduction in existing parking as opposed to maintaining the existing level of facilities and accommodating new growth with off-site parking.
On September 7, 2005, the District Court ruled that an off-mountain parking alternative is not a reasonable or feasible alternative to additonal on-site parking at the ski area and does not require further study in an Environmental Impact Statement. Also, the Court dissolved the Permanent Injunction regarding additional parking projects at Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Area that had been in effect for four years.
Pursuantly, Friends of Mount Hood and co-plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals the decision of the District Court regarding the Supplemental Information Report.
In the spring of 2006, Mt. Hood Meadows and Friends of Mount Hood agreed to begin meeting frequently with the intent of arriving at a plan that would provide additional parking at the ski area, but would result in less environmental damage than the parking concept presented in the 1997 Master Plan. The details of the settlement resulting from the mediation are found at Mt. Hood Meadows 2009 Settlement.
Attorney Karl Anuta has provided legal counsel to Friends of Mount Hood since the organization was formed, and he represented Friends of Mount Hood in the suit filed in the Federal District Court over the 1997 Master Plan for Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Area. In 2001 Attorney Chris Winter started working with Anuta on the lawsuit, and he has represented Friends of Mount Hood in the mediation with Mt. Hood Meadows.
The following environmental organizations were co-plaintiffs to the lawsuit: Hood River Valley Residents Committee, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Oregon Wild, Portland Audubon Society, Mazamas, Oregon Sierra Club Columbia Group, American Lands Alliance.