More than a million visitors have ridden the chair lifts at the famous Whistler resort in British Columbia. That figure doesn’t count skiers or snowboarders- it’s just the number of mountain bikers there. The brisk business at Whistler has inspired ski areas from Stevens Pass in Washington to Mount Bachelor in Oregon to build their own summer bike parks. But Amelia Templeton of EarthFix reports, some environmental groups say mountain biking isn’t an appropriate activity in alpine meadows.
It’s a hot summer day and Timberline Lodge is a-buzz with visitors. A forest service ranger leads a tour group through a pair of huge wooden doors. Hundreds of kids pour out of ski camp. New Yorker Abe Finkler is lacing up his boots on the porch getting ready to take his son on a few runs
Finkler: “Yeah, he’s in the camp sleep-away for the week. He’s waiting at the bottom of the lift now I’m going to go grab him up, take him for a run, and hang out with him.
Timberline boasts that it’s one of the only resorts in the US that’s open for summer skiing, thanks to its Palmer Lift, which shuttles skiers up a glacier at about 8,000 feet.
But Timberline hopes to attract summer visitors interested in carving a different kind of turn.
Last year the Forest Service issued Timberline a permit to build 17 miles of new mountain bike trails on several of its ski slopes.
Kruse: “It’s addictive. It’s extremely fun.”
That’s Steve Kruse. He manages mountain operations at Timberline. He says the park would be designed for what’s called flow riding. If you’ve never ridden on a flow trail before, Kruse says imagine something.
Kruse: "Close to a roller coaster ride. The design of the trails themselves control the pace of the rider. There’s adventure when you go down a little swoop. We build in features to slow people down.”
At the bottom, a modified chair lift with a bike rack will be waiting to take you back up the hill. Kruse says Timberline doesn’t expect to make a huge amount of money from the park: less than $380,000 a year.
But running it would create about 20 new jobs for summer lift operators, and a trail crew.
Kruse: “We’re going to be able to take people who are used to being seasonal and turn them into full time, and keep around good quality people.”
In fact, President Obama signed a bill into law in 2011 that encourages this kind of summer development at ski areas as way to create jobs.
Kruse had planned to break ground on the trails this summer. But four environmental groups have sued to block the project.
They include the Sierra Club and the Mount Hood watchdog group Bark. So what’s their concern about bike trails?
Plaeger: “The sediment, and the impacts on the aquatic system.”
That’s Russ Plaeger with Bark.
He’s standing on the banks of a cold, clear stream that tumbles down the mountain a spitting distance from the Jeff Flood Chair Lift -- where the proposed bike park would go.
Plaeger: “Still Creek, where we’re standing now -- this is critical habitat for winter steelhead. Which means it’s very important to the survival of that species.”
Plaeger says several miles downstream from here, there are also spawning ground for spring chinook salmon in Still Creek. Plaeger believes that mountain bike trails will cause erosion, that could smother salmon and steelhead eggs.
But Steve Kruse, the manager at Timberline, says the trails will be engineered and maintained to avoid triggering erosion. That’s one of the reasons the Forest service agreed to permit the new trails.
Kruse: “They’re designed to stop water from running. They’re designed to be their own drainage systems. They’re designed to be their own sediment traps.”
Timberline also says it will remove several miles of old roads and plant new vegetation to offset any erosion caused by the bike park. But environmental groups say that in alpine meadows, restoration is easy to promise and hard to deliver.
John Rhodes is a hydrologist who is helping with the lawsuit. He says Timberline’s attempts to restore disturbed ski-slopes have failed in the past.
Rhodes: “The soils are not very productive. They don’t grow vegetation very easily, especially once disturbed. The growing season is very short. It’s very cold. And vegetation doesn’t grow quickly.”
Some in Portland’s mountain biking community feel the lawsuit is driven in part by a stereotype that mountain bikers are thrill-seekers who don’t appreciate the environment. A stereotype they say isn’t fair.
Barry O’Conner is a manager at Fat Tire Farm, a mountain bike specialty shop in Portland.
O'Conner: “It comes from fear. Fear from the unknown. And I think in reality, mountain bikers are just like hikers and just like equestrians. Who want to go out and convene with nature. And I think that having a mountain bike park at Timberline would make that more accessible for more people.”
Russ Plaeger, with Bark, admits that part of what he’s concerned about is the speed and noise of the bikes.
Plaeger: “It’s a different form of recreation. That I don’t think is appropriate here.”
The new trails will make the slopes around Timberline more accessible to bikers, he says. But hikers like him will probably chose to go elsewhere.
Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio