My Turn: The time has come to consider reconfiguring Eaglecrest

Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2003

If you still think global warming is a myth, you haven't been outdoors recently.

February began with the snowmachine trailheads closed, Twin Lakes unskateable and Eaglecrest closed after just five days of partial operation.

This is the new Juneau, where it rains on Arctic Games scouts and snows mainly in our dreams. Kids think this is normal. They can't remember when people here plowed snow for a living or played ice hockey outdoors or skied on Thanksgiving. They probably do remember rain on Christmas and Eaglecrest opening in February.

A ski area, by definition, requires snow. Profitable ski areas open by mid-December at worst. Most U.S. ski areas generate a third of their revenue before New Year's Day, with Christmas break usually their highest-volume two-week period. In four of the last five seasons, Eaglecrest has been closed, in limited operation and/or had a sub-normal snowpack over Christmas break.

At Eaglecrest the lodge, Hooter chairlift, poma lift, tubing hill and lower cross-country loop are all at (or begin near) 1,000 feet in elevation. When it opened in the 1970s, Eaglecrest's base was in the snow zone, but these days it often rains instead.

Eaglecrest has snowmaking and the staff knows how to use it. Last year snowmaking kept Eaglecrest open with just eight inches of natural snow at the lodge, but snowmaking requires sustained temperatures below 25F to work. If you've tracked Eaglecrest temperature on the Juneau Wind Information Web site (http://juneau-winds.rap.ucar.edu/) this winter, you know that hasn't happened much.

The reality is that Eaglecrest no longer has reliable snow. A new, paved access road, an $800,000 cafeteria remodel and the biggest parking lot on Douglas Island won't change this.

A ski area without snow won't work. It won't provide skiing or jobs. Without snow, a publicly-owned ski area like Eaglecrest can only drain taxpayer funds and patience.

So let's move Eaglecrest back into the snow zone.

There are several mountains around Juneau with equally good terrain and better snow. But expense, politics, NIMBY attitudes and environmental concerns guarantee that moving Eaglecrest to a new sit would take years and cost millions. Besides, the CBJ has too much invested in Eaglecrest's infrastructure to seriously consider a new site (yet).

The only place to go is up.

Eaglecrest's Ptarmigan lift tops out around 2,600 feet. Pittman's Ridge, the hike-to-ski zone above Ptarmigan, is a couple hundred feet higher. Also above the lifts are Mount Stewart (3,415 feet) and Mount Troy (3,005 feet). A lift to any of these points would extend Eaglecrest's season with more and drier snow. It doesn't need to cost millions or require a brand new lift. We could move the existing Hooter lift. It's also possible to buy a used poma or T-bar for under $100,000. A lift from Raven run up the West Bowl to Pittman's Ridge would access terrain that's skiable from November to June whether there's snow 1,000 feet below at the lodge or not. Even at Juneau prices, moving Hooter or adding a surface lift would cost less than the cafeteria remodel.

Another quick, cost-effective and low-impact option would be a surface lift up Eaglecrest's east side, starting above the Upper Cross-Country Loop and topping out in East Bowl Chutes. This terrain holds some of Eaglecrest's best intermediate runs, is in the existing permit area and retains snow well. A lift here would be accessible from both the Ptarmigan and Hooter top terminals. Unlike a chairlift, the loading zone of a surface lift can be shifted uphill in response to low snow at the base.

The exact type of lift is less important than simply putting a lift at higher elevation. If you give people snow, they will come. This isn't just skiers and boarders whining about the weather. It's about jobs, family recreation and giving people a reason to stay here in winter. You may not like skiers (or snowmachiners or hunters), but when they move away their money goes with them.

If head tax funds are meant for tourism and the community, isn't boosting recreation in the tourist cycle's off-season a legitimate use?

John Erben writes for Frequency and Snowboarder magazines and has visited ski areas in 10 countries.



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