Missoula hasn't had much to offer beginner and intermediate skiers since Marshall Mountain closed down in 2003. Powder hounds in training now face a lengthy road trip to other resorts in the region for access to lower-level terrain. But newcomers to skiing and snowboarding can expect Montana Snowbowl's proposed TV Mountain expansion plan to help fill the void—though it's going to take a while.
"Ten years is a good number to work with," says Snowbowl co-owner Brad Morris. "That's what we were anticipating. Whether that's exactly what's going to happen depends on the economy, skier turnout, all kinds of things."
The U.S. Forest Service released its official draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Snowbowl expansion plan last week. Snowbowl seeks to nearly double its skiable acreage—from 1,138 acres to 2,243—as well as cut 20 new ski runs and install three new lifts and a new lodge. The document will be up for public comment through late April, and the Lolo National Forest has scheduled an open house on the plan for March 30 at the Grant Creek Inn.
Save for the need to draw more snowmaking water from Butler Creek—which occasionally contains bull trout and westslope cutthroat in its lower reaches—the Forest Service lists no major environmental impacts in its EIS. The overarching impact anticipated from Snowbowl's future expansion is a positive one for the beginning skier demographic. Stephanie Lauer of PBS&J, the firm contracted to prepare the EIS, says Marshall's closure in 2003 strengthens Snowbowl's case to increase recreational opportunities on federal land.
"Basically, [Marshall] was where all the beginners and intermediates would go," Lauer says. "It wasn't expected that Snowbowl was a place that was supposed to provide the skiing for everybody...Now that that is not available, the Forest Service was able to consider Snowbowl's proposal from the perspective of providing skiing on federal land to a greater subset of the local population."
In fact, while Snowbowl pitched its 2004 master plan under the assumption Marshall would remain open, the Forest Service began to emphasize the lack of varied local terrain after starting in on its EIS in 2005. According to the document,the expansion—which would increase Snowbowl's trail capacity for beginner and intermediate skiers by more than 1,000 skiers—would help the Lolo National Forest meet its mandate of "providing developed recreation opportunities at existing sites that are usable by a wide segment of society with a range of skill levels." The EIS states that Marshall's closure, coupled with a steady rise in skier visits locally over the past two decades, indicate that skier demand at Snowbowl is expected to grow.
"Those skiers, some of them are going to other areas and a lot of them are just skiing less or not skiing at all," Morris says of beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders in Missoula. "Especially for a lower-level skier, I think convenience is a pretty big factor. The farther they have to go and the bigger a deal it is for them to go somewhere, the less they're going to go."
If and when those skiers do choose to leave town for lower-level opportunities, they face a near two-hour drive in any direction. Peter Pitcher, owner of Discovery Ski Area outside Philipsburg, says his business relies heavily on families from Missoula and Butte who have a mix of beginner and advanced skiers. Discovery's collection of challenging runs is complemented by gentler, beginner-oriented terrain. In that sense, he feels Missoula is presently underserved.
"That's probably 75 percent of our business is those kinds of families," Pitcher says. "They don't all ski beginner terrain, but because one of them does we get the whole family."
Pitcher welcomes Snowbowl's plans to cater to his main demographic. He appreciates the competition, and believes that the resort's expansion will only encourage more people in western Montana to pursue snow sports. But he remains skeptical about Snowbowl's chances of actually executing the proposal. Discovery installed two new lifts on Forest Service land about nine years ago, so Pitcher's familiar with the types of hurdles Snowbowl will have to overcome.
"It'd be good if they did it, but Lookout [Pass] also has big plans for expansion and I question whether they'll ever be able to do that," Pitcher says. "Those hurdles they have to overcome—the environmental part, the financing part and the actual construction—are difficult to do. It's like one of those Super Mario Brothers games. You get past one set of obstacles and then there's a whole new animal out there that's even bigger and meaner than the one you got past."