Beauty eludes the beast

Washington's Methow Valley may avoid industrial tourism

  • Methow Valley area

    Diane Sylvain
  • Activist Grace Cisneros hits the trails every day she can

    Ken Olsen
  • Downtown Winthrop attracts thousands of summer visitors

    Ken Olsen
  • Tom Robinson with Luther Propst in the Methow Valley

  • Vernon and Beulah LaMotte

    Stephanie Rowatt
  • This site in the Upper Methow Valley is slated for development

    Ken Olsen

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 meadow.

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.

Trying to 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 goals.

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

The 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.

The Methow 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 storefronts.

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 inevitable.

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.

Two 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.

Hundreds 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 affluent.

"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 fairly even."

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 resort.

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).

The 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 harnessed.

"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.

So soft-path recreation was seen as common ground.

For the 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.)

Merrill, a 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.

The Okanogan 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.

A year ago September, the two environmental groups and the developer quietly put it in black-and-white and signed off.

The percentages of peace

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 environmental community.

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 horseback riding.

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 treaty.

"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."

The compromise 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

The 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 parcels.

"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 treaty.

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 nervous.

"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?

There is 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 says.

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.

Most 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 Robinson.

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' council.

"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.

The 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 it.

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 the details."

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 Propst.

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."

But, citizens' council members believe, the beauty of the Methow Valley is safer than it would have been.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Citizens held off big money for years

- How Methow Valley grew an economy

- The valley around us is deep

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 98862.

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