Eaglecrest's future is bright

Posted: Sunday, November 14, 2010

As the snow falls up in the mountains, and the line of termination dust moves down closer to sea level, all skiers in Juneau become increasingly excited. It isn't just the approach of the winter season that is prompting happy thoughts, though, but also the great strides forward made at Eaglecrest over the past few years.

I first went skiing at Eaglecrest 19 years ago, in 1991, when I first moved to Juneau to work as a legislative aide during the session. It was a wonderful mountain then, but in that time it has really matured and grown, and Eaglecrest's future is incredibly bright.

Most of us probably think of the installation of the mid-mountain Black Bear Chairlift as the biggest single improvement of the past few years, and it is an impressive accomplishment. Tremendous creativity was involved in finding a used chairlift at a resort in Lake Tahoe, getting it donated, and then raising the funds needed to pay to ship it to Juneau and install it. The original goal of $100,000 in local funds was dramatically outpaced, and the community came together to provide much more money toward meeting this worthy cause. Some city sales-tax money was also allocated toward this worthy project.

One way Eaglecrest's leaders were innovative in installing the Black Bear Chairlift was by integrating the project into the building a road to the top of the mountain. This road made it possible to construct the Black Bear towers without using helicopters to install them, which saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. The road has created a summer access route to the top of the mountain, which has dramatically increased summer visits to and use of Eaglecrest. It also was an essential part of connecting the Federal Aviation Administration meteorological tower at the top of the mountain to the electric grid, which was necessary to ensure a reliable source of weather information at Juneau International Airport.

The largest piece of the nearly $4.5 million raised for capital improvements at Eaglecrest in recent years - $2.7 million - was a legislative appropriation for the electrification project. When power lines were put in all the way up Fish Creek Road, they connected the day lodge to electric power as well. In addition to a reliable source of power for the weather tower, Eaglecrest now uses vastly less diesel fuel - some 45,000 gallons - to operate the older Ptarmigan Chairlift and the day lodge, which not only saves money but is cleaner.

A less heralded improvement is the Porcupine Chairlift, which has replaced the old 'platter pull' on which beginners learned to ski. Anyone who ever used the platter pull knows it was awkward, and often scared new skiers away. The Porcupine Chairlift was also a free hand-me-down, and the overall cost of installation was mostly shipping and installation. The community once again came together and chipped in significantly more money than originally asked for, and no sales tax funds had to be used to put in the new beginner lift, which effectively triples the terrain available to new skiers before they venture higher up the mountain.

Of course, all these improvements are great on their own, but are really inspiring when one considers the new groups of skiers, especially young people in Juneau, who are getting to use them. The fifth-grade ski-free program has been operating for several years, and by all accounts is a huge success. By offering a free season pass to kids in this one year, Eaglecrest draws in a new generation of skiers annually, at a point when research has shown that individuals tend to commit to snow-sports. Offsetting the lost revenue of these ski passes is the sales to parents or older siblings who tend to accompany the fifth-grade skiers with regularity. A slightly newer program is called "Books-to-Boards," which reflects the increasing popularity of snowboarding as the chosen means of riding down the mountain. Books-to-Boards relies on the teaching faculty at Juneau's two middle schools to identify economically-disadvantaged students with good grades who might benefit from free lift tickets, snowboarding or ski equipment, appropriate mountain clothing, and transportation. For their three years in middle school, these students are given an opportunity they and their families could never afford, and the results have been striking. Academic performance has improved, and social skills are developed. Once students reach high school, Eaglecrest makes it possible for students to earn lift tickets by working on the mountain.

Eaglecrest continues to serve more people every year, and provides increasingly higher quality services to Juneau and visitors. It is a community asset of which we can all be proud, and which a greater percentage of residents can and do use every year. More trails will be opened up making summer uses even more accessible and enticing, and I fully believe that in 30 years, the mountain will be an even more beloved and integral part of life here in Alaska's capital city.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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