The infamously sinuous Snowbowl Road, about as treacherous for drivers as any of Montana Snowbowl's black diamond runs, is being widened this summer, paving the way for the resort's long-planned expansion, which could begin as early as next year.
"I suppose there's a chance that there could be construction in a year from now, let's put it that way," says Snowbowl owner Brad Morris. "That would be the best case scenario."
Morris says the expansion is still in the permitting process and its completion years away, but, once finished, Snowbowl would become one of the largest ski resorts by acreage in the state.
This summer's work, which requires the road to be closed from 6 a.m. Mondays through noon on Fridays, is the last of the four-phase road improvement project that began in 2003. Come winter, skiers venturing up the ski hill's only route should find it wider and the curves longer and flatter—in a word, safer. In years past, Morris says, as many as 40 vehicles per season would careen off the road's edge and into the trees below.
"As part of the Master Development Plan," says Susan Colyer of the U.S. Forest Service, which essentially leases its land to Snowbowl through a special use permit (SUP), "it was recognized that if Snowbowl wanted to grow the ski area they didn't have the parking capacity or really the road facilities to accommodate the type of visitorship that they're getting and looking at increasing."
As crews work on the road, Snowbowl works to complete its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the biggest hurdle to receiving a new SUP from the Forest Service that would almost double the resort's acreage from the current 1,138 acres to 2,226. The plan calls for the resort to expand onto TV Mountain—immediately west of the existing resort and named for the numerous television, radio and microwave facilities that sit atop it—and build three new lifts, one more than it currently has. Ski run acreage would increase from 240 acres to 406.
"It's not going to be a huge resort," says Morris. "We're hoping to put in used lifts with a lower capacity. It won't be anything like Big Sky or Big Mountain, or even Bridger, for that matter. "
But once skiers access TV Mountain, the resort, at least in terms of acreage, would surpass Bozeman's Bridger Bowl, making it the third largest resort in the state behind Big Sky Resort (about 3,800 acres) and Whitefish Mountain Resort at Big Mountain (about 3,000 acres).
Snowbowl currently receives around 65,000 skier visits in a season, Morris says. He expects the expansion will up that number to around 85,000 per season, meaning the daily average of about 600 skier visits would jump to around 800.
Skiers and snowboarders shouldn't start eying TV Mountain's lines just yet, though. If the Forest Service approves the EIS—the draft EIS is already about two years behind schedule—implementation would take 11 years, according to planning documents.
"Let's say the draft was out this year," Morris says. "Depending on the comments, you could proceed fairly quickly after that to the actual construction. If somebody has a major objection to something then that slows things down."
Major objections appear unlikely. The local chapter of the Sierra Club and Friends of Lolo Peak—the two groups most outspoken against the proposed Bitterroot Resort on the flanks of Lolo Peak south of Missoula—haven't taken a position on the Snowbowl expansion. In fact, Paul Shively of the Sierra Club wasn't even aware of it. His group would probably only oppose it, he says, if it involved extensive real estate development, as is the case with the Bitterroot Resort.
The groups don't say it explicitly, but their indifference to Snowbowl's expansion may be a function of an argument they made against the Bitterroot Resort—that there isn't sufficient demand to support it, and any increases in demand could be satisfied by expanding existing ski areas in the region. That was the specific conclusion of a report conducted three years ago by the Forest Service and promoted by Friends of Lolo Peak.
"[Ski industry trends] argue against the need to increase ski area capacity to accommodate growth in potential destination visitors to ski areas on the Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests," wrote the Forest Service's National Winter Sports Program Leader Ed Ryberg. "Based on the analysis of local and regional ski area capacity, the existing or approved capacity of these ski areas is adequate to accommodate projected increases in skier/snowboarder visits within an acceptable utilization range. Considerations should be given to Montana Snowbowl's proposal to provide a more balanced mix of terrain to meet the desires of the skiing public."
Still, with an economy that's slipped like a Ford Fiesta off Snowbowl Road, a Snowbowl expansion could easily get snowed under. But, Morris says, the economy hasn't been a factor.
"Not so far. We're okay," he says. "The weather is the biggest factor that affects us."