Fight against ski resort launched broader agenda
By Ann McCreary
For many Methow Valley residents, the battle fought over a downhill ski resort in Mazama is a distant memory, or was over before they moved here.
But lessons learned during that conflict still guide the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC), created four decades ago to lead the fight against the proposed Early Winters ski area.
“Forty years is a long time,” said Maggie Coon, who helped found MVCC in 1976, and has been involved in the organization for 15 of its 40 years, including her current position as chairman of the MVCC board of directors.
“MVCC has had significant influence on the way the Methow Valley has grown and developed over the last 40 years. We’ve helped … instill a culture of advocacy, which is very much alive and well in the Methow Valley today,” Coon said.
One of those early environmental advocates was Isabelle Spohn, who learned about plans for a destination ski hill at Sandy Butte soon after moving to Mazama in 1978. Spohn became involved in the new grassroots group fighting the resort, and remained actively involved for 35 years.
“It seemed to me that many people [in the valley] hadn’t seen that kind of [development] happen before, and didn’t understand how quickly something like that could happen,” Spohn said.
“It had the possibility of having an enormous impact on the valley. It was so out of scale for the valley,” she said.
Even before MVCC was officially incorporated in 1976, some local citizens were raising alarms about rumors that Aspen Ski Corp. was making plans for a destination ski resort called Early Winters that could accommodate as many as 10,000 skiers a day — at a time when the entire population of the valley was only about 3,500 year-round residents.
Bev and Jeff Zwar had recently moved to McFarland Creek when they became aware in 1972 of Aspen’s plans for a ski resort on U.S. Forest Service land on Sandy Butte. Along with Gold Creek residents Randy Levine and DeWayne Creveling, Bev Zwar launched a letter writing campaign and newsletter about the proposed development “to put out a warning signal. “ Spohn said.
“Bev had a sister in Colorado and was aware of the downside of a resort,” Spohn said.
In 1975 Coon arrived in the Methow Valley to do a study for the Forest Service on growth in the valley. She met Vicky Welch, and in 1976 the two collaborated to form MVCC, with the goal of preserving the valley’s rural lifestyle.
“The North Cascades Highway had just opened a few years prior and the outside world was awakening to the stunning beauty of the Methow Valley,” Coon said.
MVCC was “born out of the belief that a downhill ski resort on the scale being proposed by Aspen Corp. would profoundly transform the Methow in a manner not in keeping with this valley’s history and traditions,” she said.
“We began with a David and Goliath story … what seemed like a small band of citizens up against a major corporation, with the Forest Service inclined to facilitate plans for an international-scale destination ski resort,” Coon said.
The fight against the ski resort would span 25 years and become a bitter conflict that divided valley residents into pro-resort and anti-resort camps.
In 1977, Aspen dropped plans for Early Winters, stymied by environmental opposition and governmental delays, and went on to develop Blackcomb Mountain ski area near Whistler Resort in British Columbia.
Ski hill proponents, including Mazama resident Doug Devin, formed Methow Recreation Inc. to move the project forward, and teamed up with Hosey Engineering. “Ski Early Winters” bumper stickers appeared on cars throughout the valley.
When the Forest Service completed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and decided to issue a permit for the resort in 1984, MVCC, with the Sierra Club and Washington Environmental Council, continued its fight against the resort through regulatory and legal assaults.
After losing appeals at regional and national Forest Service offices, the groups brought a lawsuit challenging the EIS as inadequate.
The case reached the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court, which agreed that the EIS did not include a full range of alternatives or mitigations for the resort impacts; did not adequately address impacts to the migratory deer herd, air quality and water quality; and did not include a worst-case analysis.
The Forest Service appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Spohn went to Washington, D.C., to watch Seattle attorney David Bricklin argue before the court, which reversed only two of the lower court’s decisions — those dealing with mitigation and worst-case analysis. For prevailing on the majority of issues, MVCC was awarded more than $200,000 in attorney’s fees and court costs, and claimed victory.
In the early 1990s the Hosey group failed financially. A new developer, R.D. Merrill, acquired 1,200 acres at the base of Sandy Butte that was part of the proposed ski area. MVCC and Friends of the Methow (FOM), a Seattle-based conservation group, began negotiations with Merrill. The company eventually agreed to abandon plans to use the property for a downhill ski resort.
Instead Merrill developed plans for an upscale golf resort called Arrowleaf and hundreds of housing units. MVCC challenged the EIS with regard to impacts on water quantity and quality.
Lee Bernheisel, one of the early members of MVCC, had previously formed his own organization with Lucy Reid called the Okanogan Wilderness League (OWL). They focused on tracking water rights issues and their “lengthy work” showed that water needed for the golf resort and housing development was not available, Spohn said.
Following a Washington Supreme Court decision limiting water rights, and a subsequent ruling by the state Department of Ecology, it became obvious that obtaining water rights would take longer than the developers could wait. Merrill dropped its plans for the Arrowleaf development in 1999.
“MVCC bought some time,” Spohn said. But it was the water issue pursued by OWL that “put the nail in the coffin of Arrowleaf.”
MVCC and FOM had negotiated first right to purchase the land if Merrill did not develop it. The Trust for Public Land took a lead in representing MVCC and FOM to acquire conservation easements for the Arrowleaf property that maintained open space and allowed development of only five homes.
In addition, MVCC made sure that money set aside by Merrill for an environmental learning center, as part of the negotiations with MVCC and FOM, was still available. The money eventually became seed money to create the Methow Conservancy.
There is still disappointment among some valley residents that the downhill ski area was defeated. Devin and his Methow Recreation Inc. worked hard to make it a reality, and he still believes “it would have been a major economic generator” that would have provided permanent jobs.
MVCC members’ fight against the resort “was a hobby for most of them,” Devin said. “They had a good time doing those things, going to court.”
From its earliest days, MVCC came to several important realizations about how to pursue its mission, and those are still relevant today, Coon said.
“The first realization was that we would be empowered by understanding the rules of the game.” Coon said. Soon after it was formed, MVCC “scraped together a few dollars to hire a consultant,” who showed them that Aspen Corp. would have to obtain many permits for the ski resort, but MVCC would only have to prevail on defeating one.
Administrative and legal challenges delayed the project for 25 years, “ultimately paving the way to victory,” with the water rights issue as the final obstacle to resort development, Coon said.
Other realizations included the need to bring diverse interests into the organization, and the importance of private land- use decisions made at the county level that ultimately “define the character of this valley,” Coon said.
MVCC has developed expertise in county land use — from comprehensive planning and zoning to shoreline and critical areas protections, she said.
This focus has been “the bread and butter” of MVCC’s work, and has resulted in adoption and defense of zoning in the Methow Valley that is more protective than elsewhere in the county, Coon said.
The Methow Review District, with the same boundaries as the school district, provides for 5-acre minimum lot sizes on the valley floor and 20-acre minimum lot sizes in the uplands.
Coon credited MVCC co-founder Vicky Welch for participating in the “seemingly endless processes” of land use planning at the county level. “Vicky was famous for her never-ending willingness to drive over the Loup to attend meetings.”
MVCC also realized that “time is on our side,” Coon said. “This played out in spades with the downhill resort issue, and is beginning to play out on the Flagg Mountain [copper mine] issue.”
The upper Methow Valley is again a focus of attention from MVCC, which is a key player in the Methow Headwaters Campaign. The campaign is fighting a proposal by a Canadian mining company to explore for copper deposits on Forest Service land on Flagg Mountain.
In an effort to head off any future development of a full-scale copper mine, the Headwaters Campaign is seeking to remove 340,000 acres in the upper valley from mineral exploration and development. The removal could be accomplished administratively by federal agencies, or legislatively by Congress, and both methods are being pursued by the campaign.
MVCC is also involved in lawsuits challenging Okanogan County’s comprehensive plan, zoning code and an ordinance opening up hundreds of miles of county roads to all terrain vehicles.
To carry out its work, MVCC has hired staff during the past two years, including Lorah Super, program manager, who was hired in 2014, and Brian de Place, MVCC’s first executive director, who was hired in June.
“The board of MVCC has always been a strong, working board, and we still have that model today — a skilled board that understands the issues and is willing to work on them,” said Super.
De Place said MVCC directors decided the organization needed staff to “continue galvanizing and working with engaged volunteers … while putting in place the systems to keep MVCC sustainable.”
He said MVCC’s current work on “a suite of land-use issues … has to do with the fundamental characteristics of the Methow Valley.”
“There are a lot of people who moved to the valley since 2000 who don’t know our history, or that we almost had a ski resort,” said Super.
“There is a whole younger demographic who don’t know what it took to get where the valley is today. This [rural] appearance we have is not an accident,” Super said.
“When people stood up to a ski area, they were saying ‘no’ to a concept that has become commonplace across the West, a place that is only for the elite.”
MVCC is fortunate to have long-term members still involved as board members and volunteers, but is looking to the future, Super said. “We need to take it to younger hands that can take it to the next generation,” Super said.
Working toward that goal, MVCC has established an internship position, named after Vicky Welch, that has a primary objective of reaching out to younger residents through social media, Super said. That means engaging them not only in high-visibility issues like the Methow Headwaters Campaign, but also in complex issues like land-use planning, she said.
“There are very few of us who fought Early Winters who are that active with MVCC these days,” said Spohn, who left the board in 2014 and is now working on behalf of a candidate for Okanogan County commission.
Spohn said she hopes MVCC will not forget its grassroots beginnings as it moves forward.
MVCC needs to be “inclusive of the whole Methow Valley, being willing to learn from inhabitants of the Carlton area and further south … and their vision of a quieter, more traditionally rural way of live in more remote areas than is possible in most of the upper Methow,” Spohn said.
Coon said MVCC is facing more complex issues now than it did 40 years ago — issues like the changing climate and the impact on water resources; growing population pressures on the Methow and implications for land use and recreation; and demand to use natural resources, like copper.
These issues require working on many different levels, from local to federal, and collaborating with other organizations, she said.
Just as it did in its first fight to preserve the valley’s character four decades ago, MVCC needs to continue relying on “tenacity and determination,” said Coon.
“Endless pressure, endlessly applied, to quote a good friend of mine, is what counts,” she said.