Nearly four years have passed since the public got its first detailed look at an ambitious 20-year, $20 million expansion plan for the ski area at Lookout Pass. The new vision for one of the region’s smaller, more affordable ski destinations called for additional lifts, a relocated base area and a tripling of the amount of skiable acreage. At the time of its initial release, Sharon Sweeney, then a district ranger on the Lolo National Forest, told the Spokesman-Review that Lookout owner Phil Edholm had prepared “a well-thought-out plan.”
The U.S. Forest Service earlier this month announced the beginning of the scoping process for Lookout’s first phase, which calls for two new lifts and 15 new trails on more than 650 acres off the resort’s backside. The public comment period—ending May 5—precedes the agency’s initial environmental review. Christopher Barrett, Lookout’s marketing director, estimates that if all goes smoothly, the resort could get Forest Service approval to begin clearing runs and installing the new chairlifts by late 2015 or 2016.
In the meantime, Lookout aims to expand its existing base lodge and upgrade the frontside chairlift to a quad. Barrett says these moves are necessary due to the near-tripling in crowd numbers over the past 15 years, during which the resort has already expanded from one chairlift to three. Just this season, Lookout set a new annual record of 65,620 skier visits.
“We’re kind of bursting at the seams, to say the least,” Barrett says. “On busy weekends and holidays, it feels like we’re past what we can hold, even though we’re not.”
However, some Lookout ski enthusiasts are raising concerns about just how long the Forest Service review process could take. The Friends of Lookout Pass—a nonprofit independent of the resort but advocating in its favor—formed this month in the wake of the Forest Service’s announcement. For spokesman Barry Dutton, the fact that it’s taken four years for the scoping process to start doesn’t bode well for the ski area’s expansion timeline.
“We’ve sort of been watching the lack of progress for the last five years of the new expansion proposal, and we were expecting the Forest Service to start public comment and scoping sometime during the ski season,” says Barry Dutton, a longtime Lookout skier and consultant with “over 25 years experience” in the ski industry who worked on Lookout’s previous expansion proposal. “Now they’ve put it off until after ski season, which we’re really concerned with. That itself suppresses comment because people aren’t thinking about skiing.”
Friends of Lookout Pass are now in the process of improving their website and disseminating informational flyers about the hurdles the expansion project could face. Dutton says the group initially began spreading the word at Lookout during the last weekend of the ski season. His group points to expansion proposals submitted by other ski areas in the region over the past 20 years as examples—particularly that of Montana Snowbowl, which first proposed new lifts and runs on TV Mountain a decade ago. The Snowbowl proposal won Forest Service approval last December.
Dutton feels there’s an ongoing indication, based on the four years it’s taken for the scoping process to begin, that “we’re setting ourselves up for another Snowbowl at Lookout.”
“The fact is, we’ve gone through a dozen of these small ski area expansion projects in the Northern Rockies in recent decades, and none of them have been controversial,” Dutton adds, citing expansions at Blacktail Mountain, Discovery and Lost Trail. “None of them have disclosed environmental impacts that were significant. None of them have seen significant opposition.”
The delay at Snowbowl is admittedly more nuanced, but the broader concern from Friends of Lookout Pass is that a long, drawn-out review process at Lookout will drive up lift pass rates currently among the lowest in the region. Barrett is quick to assuage these concerns, stating that maintaining Lookout’s affordable, family-friendly atmosphere remains a high priority. Even after the full expansion project is complete—including the other lifts, lodges and runs contained in phase two—Barrett says the area will still be more affordable and feel less crowded than resorts of similar size.
“I really don’t foresee us coming to that point where it feels like we’re just another giant corporation,” he says. “It’s going to be okay.”
While Friends of Lookout Pass advocate for a quicker process, others would just as soon see Lookout remain as is. Since the area first released its expansion proposal to the public in 2010, several groups of backcountry skiers have taken an oppositional stance.
John Latta, spokesman for the Inland Northwest Backcountry Alliance, says the new boundaries contained in Lookout’s first phase could result in user conflict in the nearby backcountry. Snowmobilers and non-motorized travelers like skiers and snowshoers already have a shaky agreement on which part of the St. Regis River basin to stick to. Skiers ducking the rope off Lookout’s new lifts to access the backcountry could displace snowmobilers, who might in turn displace the non-motorized contingent.
Latta’s group has spent nearly a decade advocating for a 6,400-acre winter non-motorized area behind Lookout, part of which lies in phase two of the ski area’s expansion plan. Latta feels there needs to be a broader discussion by the Forest Service regarding winter use in the region surrounding Lookout.
“It’s like when you get three people in a bed that only sleeps two,” Latta says. “One person rolls over and the other person falls out. It’s going to be the backcountry skiers and snowshoers that fall on the floor.”