Swaths of reddish-orange on the edges of newly widened ski runs at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area mark where crews have scattered dried-out conifer limbs to control erosion and replenish the soil.
In April and May, when the ski area was blanketed by protective snow cover, trees were helicopter-logged for the widening project.
Large, commercially valuable trees were later trucked to mills in White City and Merlin, while those that were 12 inches in diameter or less were kept on site for mitigation and restoration projects, said General Manager Kim Clark.
Many felled trees were laid across slopes to control erosion.
This week, ski area workers put the finishing touches on the run-widening project, trimming down stumps, and spreading branches and chipped wood on slopes. "Safety is the No. 1 benefit of run widening," Clark said. "It opens runs up and gives people more room. It's less congested."
The Winter Run — a key area for races — was one of several runs that were widened.
The Sonnet and Blossom runs for beginners were also among the widened runs. The changes will provide more room for novice skiers and snowboarders, who tend to make wide zigzags down slopes as they learn to turn and control their speed.
Clark said there is some concern that the dried-out branches and logs on the edges of widened runs could pose a wildfire risk.
"But the risk of fire is outweighed by the benefit of nutrients going back into the ground as it decomposes," he said.
The widening involved existing runs and didn't include carving out new ski runs.
The U.S. Forest Service previously approved an expansion plan that would include new runs and chairlifts. A court injunction sought by environmental groups that had blocked that plan was lifted in 2012, but ski officials announced late last year they would carry out improvements only within the existing ski area for now.
On July 2, Oregon Wild, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a new lawsuit against the full expansion.
Among other arguments, the conservation groups said the Forest Service didn't consider that the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has set new limits on the amount of sediment that can enter Reeder Reservoir, which stores Ashland's water and is in the Ashland Watershed along with the ski area.
The groups said the Forest Service also didn't consider climate change impacts on the ski area.
Clark said this week that there is no timeline or immediate plan for carrying out the full expansion.
Phase one of the full expansion — which includes most of the significant work — would have cost $3.5 million.
Ski area officials said the widening of existing runs, a parking lot expansion and a re-contouring of the Sonnet beginner hill will cost $250,000.
The Mt. Ashland Association, which oversees the nonprofit ski area, has raised more than $193,000 toward that work.
Revenue from trees logged for the run widening will help offset some costs. Ski area officials will hear from mills later this month what the revenue will be, Clark said.
Meanwhile, longtime expansion opponent and former Ashland City Councilor Eric Navickas filed an appeal on Tuesday with Jackson County against plans to carry out the parking lot expansion and re-contouring of the Sonnet beginner run.
Jackson County is handling the permitting process for the parking lot expansion on behalf of the Forest Service, Clark said.
Ski area officials plan to excavate soil and rocks to carve out 101 more parking spaces at the entrance to the parking lot.
Material will be added to Sonnet to make it less steep in the middle, where a bow in the ground increases the slope to 18 percent — steeper than an ideal slope of 11 percent to 14 percent for beginners, Clark said.
Topsoil from the parking lot expansion will be stockpiled and then added onto Sonnet once the re-contouring is done, he said.
Before news of Navickas' appeal, ski officials had hoped to begin the parking lot expansion and Sonnet re-contouring on Sept. 1 and have the work complete in time for the coming winter ski season, Clark said.
Last winter, the existing parking lot was too small to accommodate visitors' vehicles on 14 days, forcing people to park alongside the road, go back home, or travel to the Mount Shasta Ski Park in Northern California, Clark said.
He said roadside parking is dangerous for people who must then walk along the road to the ski area. It also narrows the road, impeding access for emergency vehicles.
In a news release on Thursday, the Mt. Ashland Association said it will continue to vigorously pursue its proposed parking lot expansion, despite the appeal by Navickas.
"There is no doubt that Mt. Ashland's plans will be ultimately approved, even if the appeal is somehow successful," Mt. Ashland Association President Frank Rote said in a statement. "Unfortunately, Mr. Navickas' appeal appears to be more about opposition to Mt. Ashland than concern about the water quality or environmental issues given that the parking area lies entirely outside the Bear Creek watershed, which is the source of water for the City of Ashland."
The Ashland Creek Watershed is part of the larger Bear Creek watershed.
The parking lot expansion area is toward the back side of Mount Ashland in the Cottonwood Creek watershed. The Sonnet Run is toward the front side of Mount Ashland in the Ashland Creek Watershed.
Navickas said the parking lot expansion does affect the Ashland Watershed since dirt removed for the expansion will be placed on the Sonnet Run. He said he is also concerned about the parking lot expansion degrading the Cottonwood Creek watershed.
Navickas said the Mt. Ashland Association should put more effort into supporting and promoting a shuttle service for skiers and snowboarders, rather than expanding the parking lot.
"I do feel the Mt. Ashland Association has not made a real effort to look at alternatives. I'd like to bring them to the table to discuss alternatives more," he said.
Several years ago, the Mt. Ashland Association discontinued its shuttle service because of rising costs, declining ridership and lack of support for a fundraiser to continue the program.
A private company, Ashland Mountain Adventures, stepped in but also canceled its service because low ridership levels didn't cover costs.
Jay Lininger, wildland ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said conservation groups that are battling the full expansion were not opposed to the run widening.
They had encouraged the Mt. Ashland Association for years to make improvements within the existing ski area. The groups do not support the parking lot expansion, however, Lininger said.
Navickas said he was not supportive of the run widening.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.