Mountain High 

Like most presidents entering their second terms, President Bush is experiencing a fair amount of turnover inside his Cabinet. Outdoor lovers are taking notice, hoping for an environmental policy with a bit less of an industrial bent.

While Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton has announced her intention to stay on, Montanans preferring an oil-rig-free recreational landscape took solace in last week’s resignation of Norton’s right-hand man, Steven Griles. For two decades, Griles has flip-flopped between private- and public-sector work as it has suited him—and the oil, gas and coal companies for whom he has lobbied. The Associated Press reports that Griles, while on the payroll as the number-two man at Interior, received an additional $284,000 annually from his former petrochemical lobbying firm, an impropriety so blatant that a recent review by the agency’s inspector general referred to Griles’ double-dipping as a prime example of “institutional failure.”

Interestingly, just three weeks after the election (and amid the exodus of Bush administrators), the Office of Government Ethics relaxed longstanding rules that, until now, prevented departing Cabinet secretaries from lobbying former colleagues for one full year after leaving office, ostensibly to prevent the appearance of conflicting interests.

According to The Wilderness Society, more than 150,000 acres of potential wilderness have received the go-ahead for oil and gas drilling under Griles’ (and Norton’s) watch. Still, Griles played a critical, although uncharacteristic, role in the placement of a four-year moratorium on drilling on the Rocky Mountain Front. This politically expedient move pushed through immediately prior to the November election was in no way in keeping with the administration’s other policies. A replacement has not yet been named.

The Mountain High mailbox (photo@missoulanews.com) has been swamped lately, filling up with concerns from throughout the community about the new Lolo ski area proposed by longtime Bitterrooter Tom Maclay. If built as planned, the resort would be only partially ski-related: An amphitheater, a golf course, shops and row after row after row of high-end condos and homes would serve as the economic engine powering the development. The resort’s runs would also penetrate deeply into premiere wildlife habitat and inventoried roadless lands, a unique alpine environment where no developed recreation facilities can legally be constructed—under current land-use plans, at least. But forest management plans can change, something Maclay and his team of experienced developers are hoping to facilitate.

According to Bitterroot National Forest supervisor Dave Bull, however, changing management plans requires public support, something the agency has not yet received. All available evidence at this point indicates a serious battle will rage if the Forest Service permits commercial use of these roadless areas. Hikers, backcountry skiers, hunters and activists have stated their opposition and their willingness to aggressively protect the highest point visible from the Missoula Valley from becoming the next local landmark to become “striped” with development.

But regardless of how the story develops, the resort has many hoops to jump through, and it will be a long while until the project can move onto public land. For the corporate perspective, e-mail info@SkiBitterrootResort.com, and for a non-corporate perspective contact Bob Clark at the Sierra Club’s Missoula office at bob.clark@sierraclub.org.

The National Audubon Society’s 105th annual Christmas Bird Count Dec. 18 is rallying experts and nonexperts alike to help paint an accurate avian picture of our feathered friends living in the Missoula Valley. Looking to make a day of it? Call Larry Weeks (549-5632), bird watcher extraordinaire, and he’ll get you dialed out with a team of watchers at specific locations in the valley. Or if you’d like to help by watching your own birdfeeder, contact Elizabeth Johnston, (327-1525, birder@bigsky.net) to score the “how to” and a checklist. Watchers are asked to count and identify the species and number of birds and report the tally. This will be Missoula’s 45th year of counting, and typically Missoula tallies about 70 species and 6,000 individual birds.

The New Rocky Mountaineers are heading up North Jocko Peak in the Mission Mountains Dec. 19 and trip leader Gerald Olbu wants you to come along. You’ll get three miles of trail walking (snowshoeing?) before off-trailing it for three miles through mostly open terrain and slight avalanche risk. Then you’ll cut up to the peak via a moderately steep but straightforward ridge to the summit, gaining about 3,400’. Call Olbu at 549-4769 for more information.

Join your fellow cross-country ski racers in the fine snow atop the 7,200’ Chief Joseph Pass for the Fourth Annual Continental Divide Classic Ski Race Dec. 18 at 11 a.m. on the region’s most accessible snow. The races—a 10K and a 20K—begin with a mass start and take place on a fully featured and neatly groomed course, complete with a toasty warming hut. All proceeds from the $15 entry fee go to the grooming fund; call Tony Neaves at Valley Bicycles at (888) 265-9881 for more info.

Snow reports should always be viewed with skepticism, especially this early in the year, and even more so when it’s been this warm in the valley. But the weather, and therefore the snow quality, is changing quickly, so let’s think positive as we head for our early season turns.

As of press time, Snowbowl is reporting all chairs running with two feet of snow up top and $20 tix; Big Mountain has 50 inches and $25 tix; Lookout Pass has 42 inches and $20 tix; Blacktail Mountain has 24 inches and $30 tix; Discovery Basin has 18 inches and $30 tix; and Lost Trail is hoping to open soon, so stay tuned.

Send thoughts on a Lolo Peak ski resort and your outdoor schedule to: photo@missoulanews.com

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