Forest Service discusses ski area expansion
In recent weeks, Laird Moody Williams Ski Area owner, has said unless he can expand and add snowmaking, this will be the last year he will keep the facility open.
On Friday, Susan Skalski, Kaibab National Forest Williams District ranger, took time to explain the Forest Service stance on the proposed ski area expansion.
In 1997, Alpine Recreation Company initiated an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) so it could expand the resort. The company, which runs the ski area, includes partners Moody, Tom Jernigan and Don Frankel.
Earlier attempts to expand the business were thwarted when in 1993 the Mexican Spotted Owl was placed on the endangered species list and in 1995 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established a 200-acre Mexican spotted owl protected activity center (PAC) on Bill Williams Mountain.
Last fall after going through the public comment process, the Forest Service came up with Alternative D, which basically keeps the ski area within its existing 37-acre footprint but does allow for snowmaking, snow play and a snowboard terrain park.
“We brought in a Forest Service ski consultant who indicated there is market here for a small ski area geared toward families seeking winter sports that doesn’t exist in other places because the closest full-scale, full-amenity ski areas are in Taos, N.M. and Durango, Colo.,” she said.
Skalski said the proponents indicated at a November 2000 meeting and in a letter drafted that December they were not interested in pursuing development without expanding the site.
“In February of 2001, we met with the proponents and prospective investors from Phoenix,” she said. “That meeting ended abruptly.
“The Forest Service is not interested in pursuing anything above 8,000 feet.”
Once above that level she said four issues are magnified as evidenced by public comment letters — fragmentation of habitat, spotted owl concerns, visibility and tribal concerns.
“On Bill Williams Mountain, there is a pretty unique mix of species,” she said
“It is one four area sky islands that include Sitgreaves, Kendrick and the San Francisco Peaks.
“With the loss of Kendrick to the Pumpkin Fire in May of 2000, there is less of this habitat available.”
Skalski also pointed out the fire affected the spotted owl PAC on Kendrick because of substantial loss of habitat.
She said the Forest Service worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to resolve spotted owl PAC issues on Bill Williams. However, during the public comment period, a letter surfaced from a researcher claiming to have heard spotted owls during the 1970s within the proposed ski area expansion area.
“We could reopen formal analysis with fish and wildlife, but fixing any one of the four issues wouldn’t solve it,” she said. “All are inter-related and all are important.”
The higher up the mountain ski runs and chair lifts go the more visible they are from Interstate 40. Skalski said visibility issues raised strong public reaction.
“Native American tribes are concerned about the effects of further development on their cultural use of the mountain and the value Bill Williams has to them,” she said.
Skalski said recent dry winters with little snow are also a concern.
“In the spring, we will withdraw the Notice of Intent (regarding the ski area) in the Federal Register unless something radically changes our plans,” she said. “The register is a document for federal agencies listing planned actions such as an EIS.”
She also talked about past attempts to expand the ski area.
“In a 1985 EIS process, the Forest Service did propose a large expansion up there to 600 acres with snowmaking and accepted bids for 20 months,” Skalski said. “Not a single bid was submitted.
“Prospective bidders said the return on their investment would be marginal.”
Skalski said also at that time, taxpayers indicated they didn’t want municipal funds being used to support the ski area.
According to John Eavis, KNF South Zone public services branch leader, Moody currently has a 30-year permit on the existing ski area, which is good through 2027.
Skiing has been available at the Williams Ski Area site for 50 years.