Op-ed: Good news/bad news on Timberline’s bike park

The following article appeared July 8, 2010 on the Commentary page of The Oregonian. It was written by Dennis Chaney, Chairman, Friends of Mount Hood.

Good news/bad news on Timberline’s bike park

The Oregonian’s recent editorial on the proposed downhill bike park at the Timberline ski area was a classic case of good news/bad news for those of us concerned about the heritage and integrity of Timberline Lodge.

The good news is that groups such as Bark and Friends of Mount Hood have been working hard to get the facts out on what is happening up there at the 6,000-foot elevation. So there’s some satisfaction that The Oregonian editorial board agrees that the proposed bike park is controversial enough for the editorial page.

The bad news is that the editorial board got it wrong. It was a miss because the board obviously shot from the hip without having all the facts. The Friends of Mount Hood first spoke publicly about the proposed plan on April 27 in a guest editorial in The Stump, but the editorial board made no reference to any such opposition to the proposal. And it’s not that we didn’t try. On May 12, we asked to appear before the editorial board, but we received no response.

If the editorial board had contacted us, we could have explained that the U.S. Forest Service and RLK and Company, operator of Timberline Lodge and Ski Area, have been privately talking about this plan since at least December of last year. When we learned about the plan and contacted RLK we were invited to a quickly called meeting held on April 6. At this meeting with RLK and the Forest Service we learned that the Forest Service posted the proposal on its website a few days after we contacted RLK. The Forest Service classified the plan as a “C.E.,” meaning a categorical exclusion. That means that the agency can make a decision on the proposal at the lowest level with minimal study or public comment. At the conclusion of this meeting the Forest Service assured us that the C.E. classification was an error, and there would be a full-blown analysis with maximum public comment.

All of that may seem mundane, but it’s important because as the editorial board indicated, the Forest Service is Timberline’s landlord — meaning that all of us are the landlord, all of us are the owners and RLK is the renter.

It’s obvious from the editorial board’s descriptions of Whistler in British Columbia that it’s familiar with downhill riding. Which begs the question: What’s with the photo of the lame bike that will never see Ninja Cougar or Crack Addict? A photo of a dual-suspension carbon-fiber GT Fury (list price $7,000) would have been much more appropriate. But the point is, the board must know that there is little connection between lift-assist downhill riding and single-track trail riding. While mountain bike advocates will never publicly speak out against a lift-assist downhill park, what they really want is more close-in single-track trail opportunity. That’s what the Forest Park controversy in Portland is all about.

Bike advocates like to talk about how they sacrificed for the Mount Hood wilderness bill. But we could have told the editorial board that only 58 miles of that were closed to bikes, and there’s about 250 miles or more of trail open to bikes in the Mount Hood National Forest alone. The so-called pent-up demand is in the urban and suburban areas. Ask the regular single-track rider what he really wants: a challenging variety of easily accessed wooded trails or a 60-mile drive for the privilege of paying $25 to $30 to bomb the hill?

And contrary to the oft-repeated allegation, there is nothing to support the claim that a “pay-to-ride” bike park at Timberline will have any effect on Forest Park, or anywhere else, for that matter.

Well, let me modify that last sentence. A new downhill bike park at Timberline will definitely have an effect on the existing one at Ski Bowl. What we’re seeing here is the start of what has become a hard fact in the ski industry: the stealing of a finite number of customers with faster lifts and all-around nicer facilities. The editorial board hopes that with the help of the consultant who designed the Whistler bike park we too could become a mountain bike destination. If it’s that simple, then I propose they work their magic on Ski Bowl and leave Timberline alone.

I do have to credit the editorial board for qualifying its big thumbs up with a big BUT: The board’s willing to dump the whole thing overboard if it would “harm our cherished mountain or its waterways.” Of course, this again begs the question: Just how much do we cherish our mountain? Do we cherish it when we tear it up with 24 miles (the plan’s 15 miles is for year one) of 3-foot to 6-foot wide “armored” tracks. If the board had talked to us, we could have explained that the tracks have to be built like mini-roadbeds because of the incredible erosion that occurs at the high alpine elevation in the Cascade Range. Or we could have asked if the editorial board members like breathing the “moon dust” notorious to our volcanic slopes. (By the way, whoever said Timberline will never be a Whistler knew what he was talking about.)

And it’s clear that RLK cherishes our mountain for its stated right in its written proposal: “A certain amount of soil movement has to be expected on the steeper single track, but it is mitigated by the fact that it is monitored, managed, and maintained on a continual basis.” Translation: It’s all OK because after we tear it up all day we’re going to put it all back together again!

So there you have it. The Oregonian editorial board thinks this project makes great sense because, for one thing, according to the board, RLK will still have an economic base when our climate changes and there isn’t enough snow to support skiing. Well, if that’s a forgone conclusion, we plead for the opportunity to work with RLK and the Forest Service to come up with acceptable concepts that will generate income without destroying the very thing we all supposedly cherish so much.

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