METHOW VALLEY, Wash. - Every day this winter a crowd of more than 8,000 people - primarily tourists and vacation-home owners - would be swarming the slopes of this rural valley, if developers and the Forest Service had held sway. A downhill ski resort would be in place, decorated by 4,000 condos built close to the slopes. Other nearby private land would be packed with the rich development that defines the modern downhill resort.
Yet today the upper reach of the valley,
the target of the downhill resort, remains so sparsely settled that
there are just 110 registered voters. Land subdivided under ominous
ranchette real-estate signs still has the appearance of sleepy
The Aspenization of this high, cold,
stunning country has for 20 years been staved off by a coalition of
environmentalists battling the U.S. Forest Service and one
developer after another. The battle ranged 2,500 miles to set
precedent in the U.S. Supreme Court.
end the spectre of a downhill resort once and for all,
environmentalists have turned now to an unusual collaboration with
development. In essence, they have agreed to support a more modest
resort that will still have an impact. In exchange, the developer
will divert some profits toward environmental
The compromise being spelled out on paper
has fractured the environmental community and may fail on specifics
and personalities; even if it does, there will be a benefit just
from the attempt. The bitterness and constant tension of
development conflicts around the West could find here some
innovative terms for resolution.
Battling the inevitable
glacier-carved Methow Valley stretches 70 miles, from the sagebrush
breaks of the Columbia River to the forests and peaks of the North
Cascades around the tiny town, Mazama. The Upper Methow lies close
to the Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades National Park and Lake
Chelan. It is a beautiful landscape, pastoral on the valley floor
and including high mountain meadows bounded by Silver Star Peak,
Sandy Butte and the ruggedly vertical Goat Wall - -sliced vertical
by the river of ice," in the words of Sally Portman, author of the
valley history, The Smiling Country.
is home to plenty of wildlife, including the largest migratory mule
deer herd in Washington. Winthrop, the largest town near the
proposed downhill ski resort, still looks like a sleepy Jackson
Hole, Wyo., of the 1960s, right down to the touristy, Old West
Yet when snow doesn't block the
quickest highway over the Cascade Mountains, 4.5 million residents
of greater Seattle need only drive four or five hours to reach
here. Migration of vacation-home builders and buyers from the Puget
Sound and the Aspen/Sun Valley circuit seemed
No fewer than four developers have
come in with plans for a downhill ski resort that would be an
engine for growth.
Old-timers born in this
valley and transplants formed the Methow Valley Citizens Council to
fight the first proposal, made by the Aspen Ski Corp. in 1975. The
locals wisely sought allies in Seattle, the state's center of
population and political power, spurring the formation of Friends
of the Methow.
The two environmental groups had
to take on officials of the Okanogan National Forest (which
supported the Aspen-style resort), town councils in the valley, the
Okanogan County Commission, a succession of Washington governors
and nearly every member of the state's congressional delegation.
The environmentalists wore down one developer
after another and beat the Forest Service in court (see story
below). But every victory was temporary.
years ago, the R.D. Merrill Co., a timber company branching into
retirement homes and commercial real estate, bought the 1,200 acres
that were the core of the proposed downhill resort. The permit for
the resort also passed to Merrill, and it seemed the battle was
starting over again.
And all along, even as
environmentalists were winning a delaying action, they were losing
the rural character and demographics of the valley. The mere
possibility of a downhill resort had set off phenomenal real estate
speculation. "It's basically flypaper for real estate sales," says
Tom Robinson, a local environmentalist.
of acres around Merrill Co." s core property have been subdivided
into small lots. As county plat maps show, "This isn't the
wilderness," says Grace Cisneros, who lives near Mazama, the gas
station, cafe and new boutique-type stores that make up the
community closest to the proposed resort. Though many of the
subdivided lots stand empty and seemingly undisturbed, they are
ready for building and occupation. Despite appearances, says
Cisneros, "This is suburbia."
The Mazama store
markets $100-a-bottle French wine, $200 sunglasses, micro-brewery
beer and Dilettante chocolate - evidence that whatever the
magnitude of future development, the Upper Methow was already
becoming a playground for the
"A strong invasion
of upper-income people" is changing the valley, laments Jim Doran,
a local attorney and chairman of the citizens' council. "Classism
is not a good thing and the Methow has had a history of being
Mike Irwin, former Winthrop
newspaper editor, isn't convinced the environmentalists won
anything. "During the 20 years (of battle), development happened
all around them," Irwin says.
A less harmful ski economy
Inheriting the history of stalemate, Merrill Co. proceeded
cautiously, talking to the opposition and even hiring a pollster to
find out what residents wanted. Maggie Coon, one of the founders of
the citizens' council, says a dose of realism got the two sides
talking. "A big reason that we've been able to get this far is that
the environmental community has recognized some significant change
is going to happen. We can't expect this incredibly unique place to
stay this way forever."
The company took the
initiative, announcing it saw only two options: It could liquidate
by subdividing its holding into 20-acre parcels, which could be
further subdivided into a hodgepodge of five-acre parcels. Or it
could work with environmentalists to craft an acceptable
Compromise might have taken a different
form, or no form at all, if the valley's residents hadn't put
together a network of trails and lodges, backed by a separate
citizens' group, to create a substitute economy based on
cross-country skiing (see story next page).
scaled-back Merrill resort could ignore fast-lane downhill skiing
and instead feature golf, tennis, and cross-country skiing and
mountain biking linked to 170 kilometers of existing well-groomed
trails. The valley was already attracting 20,000 to 25,000 people
each year to ski cross-country, a low-impact sport that the
developer realized could be
"We saw a beautiful
piece of property that can be developed as an asset to the state
and become an example of how development might be pursued in
environmentally sensitive areas," says Bill Pettit, a top executive
in Seattle's commercial banking circles for 20 years before
becoming president of Merrill.
recreation was seen as common ground.
environmentalists, who had fought so fiercely to block three
earlier developers, compromise was difficult. But it was also
attractive because Merrill was willing to give up the permit for
the downhill ski resort. (Another developer could acquire the
permit, but Merrill owns the land most suitable for lodges and
other amenities; if Merrill doesn't build the downhill resort, most
likely it will never be built.)
private holding company managing the assets of the 19th-century
Seattle timber baron Richard D. Merrill, was making its first
attempt at an environmentally sensitive resort. It could afford a
less ambitious project in the Upper Methow because the price of the
land was not high and, "We're looking for a fair return, not to
maximize our return," Pettit says. Downhill skiing was relatively
easy to give up because of the huge investment it required and
other complications, he says.
The Merrill Co.
proposed a first phase that would put 10 cabins, 10 single-family
homes and a lodge and tennis courts on 68 acres. An old gravel pit
being used as a dump would be transformed into a lake. Eventually
another 500 to 600 housing units would be built, along with the
golf course and other facilities.
County government, which is laissez-faire about development, was
not seen as a force. Neither was the Forest Service, which was
still muttering about downhill skiing.
ago September, the two environmental groups and the developer
quietly put it in black-and-white and signed
The percentages of
The compromise - a memo of understanding
signed by representatives of Merrill, Friends of the Methow and the
Methow Valley Citizens Council - is considered a private contract
and hasn't been shared with reporters. Details are still being
negotiated. In general the environmentalists agreed not to fight
the first phase of the development or the concept of the second
phase. There is nothing to stop them from suing if they believe the
impact statements are inadequate.
Environmentalists are getting a payoff. Besides giving up the
downhill ski resort, the company agreed to turn over 1 percent of
the proceeds from selling lots; anybody reselling a lot will have
to pay another 1 percent, because it's in the deed restrictions.
The payments will go to a special foundation run by the
The foundation also
will receive a to-be-determined percentage from fees generated by
the golf course and other resort activities, such as tennis and
With a bit of irony, the
foundation plans to do some building itself - a headquarters that
will demonstrate environmentally sensitive construction. The
foundation will also buy land for open space and corridors for
migrating mule deer, and fund environmental education, including
materials that will show other developers the benefits of
energy-efficient construction and how to build with the least
impact on wildlife, says Robinson, a drafter of the
"This is a model of
paying-your-way development," says Robinson, who has also worked
for The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and
Greenpeace and briefly was executive director of the Washington
Environmental Council. "If you went back 40 years and instituted
this in Jackson Hole (where downhill skiing has wholly redefined a
community), you would have raised millions of dollars and you would
be off-setting a lot of impact."
approach is the brainchild of Luther Propst, director of the
Sonoran Institute in Tucson, Ariz., which consults with communities
around the West about growth and planning. The treaty "allows
economic development of the valley to become the engine for funding
conservation in the valley," Propst says. "It creates an
on-the-ground example of sustainable development."
To some, it's a sellout
Merrill Co. and the environmental groups say they want to model how
development can be both sensitive and profitable. They talk about
influencing other developers in the valley to follow a similar
tack. Along the way, this odd alliance also will try to lobby the
county for tighter regulations to keep the neighborhood nicer for
people and wildlife.
The county government has
to be persuaded to go along; its planning department (under-funded
and overworked) could delay development to the point the company
decides to go ahead and liquidate. Some environmentalists had
feared the liquidation almost as much as a downhill resort, because
it would carve the land into small
"An alliance of
developers and environmentalists is very powerful," says Dave
Sabold, vice chairman of the citizens' council and operator of a
nursery and landscaping business. "It's harder for (the county
commissioners) to wiggle out of things they don't want to do."
Recently, the two sides agreed to work together
for a countywide air-quality ordinance that will benefit residents
and deny any economic advantage to developments not covered by the
Construction on the first phase was
supposed to start in May but was stalled in the county permitting
process. As of early September, work was under way on the lake and
some roads and utilities. The first buildings will go up next
spring. Despite the optimism, all the players are
"You don't lay down
arms after 20 years of doing battle and embrace each other," Coon
says. "Everyone is feeling their way gingerly along."
Early on, Doran worried that 500 housing units
would be too hard on deer and other wildlife, but he backs the
treaty now, with a hint of reservation. The experience is like a
second marriage, he says. "You've been through the wringer once,
got your eyes open, and you know what to look for." As the company
has responded to environmentalists' concerns, such as air quality,
deer migration corridors and housing densities, Doran's skepticism
has eased. "Let's say the trust level is building."
It's a given that some divisiveness remains
among environmentalists, who are being asked to support a golf
course and development that, no matter how carefully planned, will
have a downside. The question lingers: Is the compromise a
surrender or the only realistic choice?
concern that air quality will suffer when an increase in motorists
and wood-burning fireplaces combines with the valley's frequent
inversions. Environmentalists not associated with the two groups
have appealed Merrill's water rights permit. But the company is
confident enough that it is going ahead, Pettit
Robinson, who will work for the
to-be-named environmental foundation, believes the entire package
is the best alternative, especially considering some of Merrill's
deed restrictions. For example, people who purchase the company's
lots will only be able to build on so much of the property and will
have to leave the rest of the land as is.
environmentalists involved in the compromise believe that the pace
of change can be at least partially throttled back. "Getting rid of
the pie-in-the-sky downhill resort should take away the impetus for
real estate speculation," Coon says. Golf and cross-country skiing
should attract dramatically fewer people than a downhill ski
resort. "It's a difference of magnitude," says
Also, the new foundation may be able
to use its money to buy some of the subdivided lands before they
become more suburbia.
Among the people who
didn't want to sign the compromise is Beulah LaMotte, a third
generation rancher and co-founder of the citizens'
"In my estimation we
are signing away something irreplaceable," LaMotte says. "I think
the preferred alternative is to have the whole area in a land trust
that wouldn't allow development." She believes that sewage from the
development will pollute waterways and the underlying aquifer and
that all impacts are not being admitted.
Forest Service is a critic
Robinson said the
land trust idea was explored, but there wasn't sufficient money to
buy the property. And there wasn't an agency willing to manage
The Forest Service still longs for downhill
skiing with visitor-days to measure. Jim Gregg, the agency's area
community development coordinator, worked on major downhill ski
development at Vail and Breckenridge, Colo. In this valley, he
says, "I would have liked to see an option for a smaller, alpine
resort with a lift up high, above 4,000 feet, where you don't have
to make snow. That would provide more diversity to skiing."
Gregg says the environmental community is
pushing the developer too hard. Considering all that the company is
offering, the environmentalists should be wholeheartedly
applauding, he says. "Instead, they're hassling (the company) on
Company officials say the Forest
Service may be reading too much into the give-and-take. "We've
found the (environmentalists') issues to be largely factual and
objective and personally felt our working relationship on the
issues was quite constructive," Pettit says.
But the company says it won't fight a lot of litigation and will
see if the next phase of the development is as costly and
cumbersome to push through the county government as the first phase
was. There will also be difficult details to settle about deed
restrictions in the third phase of development when the bulk of
housing units will go up.
Details will determine
whether this is truly an environmentally sensitive development or
just "green-washing" for something worse, says
If the project doesn't pencil out,
Pettit warns, the company could still liquidate. From any
perspective, the compromise is an experiment. "It may not pan out -
it's a big risk," Coon says.
No matter how
environmentally friendly the construction is, once Merrill starts
advertising its resort, the rest of the world will tune in to the
Methow Valley. As Doran concedes, "It's going to spur growth."
"The same things that
happened (to other ski towns) will happen to us in slow motion,"
says Keith Barnett, a free-lance photographer living near Mazama.
"Money will win in the end."
council members believe, the beauty of the Methow Valley is safer
than it would have been. n
Ken Olsen is a reporter for the Moscow Pullman Daily News. For more
information, contact the Methow Valley Citizens Council, P.O. Box
774, Twisp, WA 98856; the R.D. Merrill Co., 95 S. Jackson, Suite
300, Seattle, WA 98104 or the Winthrop Ranger District, Okanagan
National Forest, P.O. Box 579, Winthrop, WA