Projects designed to reduce wildfire hazards in the Ashland watershed likely would disturb more habitat for a rare, bushy-tailed weasel than the proposed expansion of the Mount Ashland ski area, according to a newly released environmental study prepared by the U.S. Forest Service.
Ski area expansion likely would remove suitable habitat within the home range of one male Pacific fisher and one female fisher, the study determined. Thinning trees within the Ashland watershed to reduce the risk of a catastrophic wildfire potentially could influence the home range of two to three female fishers and one to two male fishers.
Supporters of the expansion said the new study verifies the conclusions of the 2004 environmental review that approved the expansion.
"We're still reviewing the document," said Kim Clark, general manager of the Mount Ashland ski area. "We like what we see so far, and we're looking forward to moving on."
Expansion opponents said it showed the need to protect fisher habitat and scale back the expansion. Eric Navickas of Ashland, who sued to block the expansion, said the study indicates cumulative impacts on the fisher population should require the Forest Service to modify its wildfire hazard reduction plans and the agency and ski area to scale back the expansion.
"I fully expect (the Forest Service) will see legal challenges again," Navickas said. Navickas also sued the Forest Service over its wildfire reduction plan, known as Ashland Forest Resiliency.
The 94-page environmental study draws no new conclusions about the expansion. Rather, it complies with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals order to address shortcomings in the final environmental impact statement issued in 2004, said Steve Johnson, project leader.
In September 2007, the court found the Forest Service failed to adequately study how the expansion might affect fisher habitat. The court also directed the Forest Service to designate land zones known as riparian reserves and restricted watershed terrain within the area where new ski trails would be built.
The 2004 environmental review gave approval for building 16 new ski trails, two chairlifts and about 200 additional parking spaces at the ski area. Three conservation groups sued the Forest Service in federal district court and then appealed the district court decision at the 9th Circuit.
Forest Service biologists estimate there are 48 to 91 fishers in a roughly circular area that extends from just north of the city of Ashland to about 6 miles south of the California state line, bounded on the east by Interstate 5. The local fishers are at the extreme northern end of a population of 1,000 to 2,000 animals that extends well into Northern California.
Biologists estimated each male has a range of 15,000 acres to 36,000 acres. Females have a range of about 6,000 acres.
The current ski area occupies about 287 acres. The proposed ski runs would require the removal of about 68 acres of trees.
Fishers are wary of humans and human activity, and tend to inhabit heavily treed landscapes. Biologists determined the new ski trails would not prevent fishers from moving north and south across the Siskiyou Mountains.
The court also required the Forest Service to rezone soils in some areas where new ski trails have been planned. Johnson said the ski trails proposed for those newly defined zones still comply with the criteria for limiting erosion.
Johnson said the Forest Service will accept public comments on the draft review until May 10. Those comments will be incorporated into a final supplemental environmental impact statement, which should be released sometime in June.
The final supplemental impact statement will go to U.S. District Judge Owen Panner. Panner initially rejected the conservation groups' suit and was overruled by the appeals court. He issued an injunction halting the expansion until the Forest Service corrected the violations of environmental laws pointed out by the appeals court.
If the information in the supplemental report prompts the Forest Service to issue a new ruling (called a "record of decision") about the expansion, that could open the door to new legal challenges.
Bill Kettler is a reporter for the Medford Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4492 or firstname.lastname@example.org.