METHOW VALLEY, Wash. - Only by sticking determinedly to their vision of this valley for 20 years did environmentalists force a compromise from all-out development.


When the Aspen Ski Corp. and the Forest Service wanted to develop a downhill ski resort here in 1974, the Methow Valley Citizens' Council and the Friends of the Methow organized opposition so effectively that eventually the corporation dropped the Methow from its sights and instead developed Whistler Ski Resort in British Columbia.


But other developers, with the Forest Service still going along, kept pressure on this valley.


The biggest threat came in 1984, when the Forest Service approved the Early Winters resort, which would have drawn as many as 8,200 downhill skiers a day. The proposal called for 4,000 condos on 1,200 privately owned acres that were an amalgamation of former hard-scrabble ranches.


Snowmaking and the increased population would have consumed more than 3.6 billion gallons of water a year in a county that sits in the rain shadow of the Cascades and receives less than 12 inches of precipitation a year. The environmental impact statement for Early Winters spilled the battle into court.


The citizens' council sued, charging that the environmental review of Early Winters was flawed for, among other things, failing to adequately consider alternative sites, air-quality deterioration in the Pasayten Wilderness and impacts on migrating mule deer.


The environmentalists lost in U.S. District Court, but won substantial victories on appeals that wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Forest Service had to fork out some $240,000 in legal fees and revamp the impact statement.


The spotted owl flitted into the picture, and the possibility that the North Cascades could be home to the endangered bird delayed resort development again. In 1992 a partnership went broke, and through foreclosure, the core parcel of private property was acquired by R.D. Merrill Co., which saw a way to satisfy its bottom line without downhill skiing.


* K.O.