The Flathead National Forest has released an environmental assessment for plans by Whitefish Mountain Resort designed to enhance skiing in Hellroaring Basin.
The resort in November submitted plans to the Tally Lake Ranger District for the project located within its permit boundary. Public comment is being taken on the assessment through June 1.
Skiing opportunities for a variety of skier levels and skier circulation in Hellroaring Basin is limited, and access to the south slopes of Hellroaring Peak are also limited because it is not lift accessible.
“Areas of the basin is too densely forested to be suitable for tree skiing, which is very popular at the Resort, and seems to be growing in popularity in the ski industry overall,” according to the forest’s environmental assessment.
Intermediate terrain in the basin is limited to Hell Fire Run, which can be challenging due to poor snow coverage at lower elevations. Hellroaring Chair 8 is the only chairlift in the basin, and it often has a delayed opening due to poor snow coverage.
“It is a challenge for skiers to make return visits to the basin because of the lift configuration,” according to the assessment. “Additionally, access to the north side of the resort from the basin is restricted and does not provide for effective skier circulation.”
Tally Lake District Ranger, Bill Mulholland, said in a release that the forest is “pleased to offer this opportunity for the public to provide their comments on this project, especially since the ski resort is a highly valued recreational resource for the Flathead Valley.”
The Hellroaring Basin Improvements Project is 802 acres with 657 acres within Hellroaring Basin and the Hellroaring drainage on the northwest side of Big Mountain. The project also includes 127 acres within the Big Creek drainage on the north side of Big Mountain.
The project, located within the resort’s existing permit boundary will create an opportunity to open up Hellroaring Basin earlier in the season and provide better access to the terrain in that area, according the resort.
The resort proposes to create eight new ski runs totaling 3.5 miles from the upper edge of Hellroaring Basin to the Grand Junction area. Selective tree removal is planned to create seven gladed areas, at about 61 acres, adjacent to the ski runs, as well as selective tree removal for scenery.
Some terrain modifications adjacent to Hell Fire Run and Swift Creek Run are also proposed.
Relocation of the Chair 8/Hellroaring lift would take skiers from Grand Junction to the flat area where Big Ravine and Toni Matt runs split, above the snowmaking ponds.
The current Purgatory Run would be abandoned allowing for it to eventually naturally grow in.
Installation is proposed of a new chairlift from Grand Junction in Hellroaring Basin to the summit of the Hellroaring Peak.
Clearing a cat track snowmobile trail between the saddle below Hellroaring Peak and the Gray Wolf Run is planned.
The plan also calls for the construction of two new service roads, including one bridge over Hellroaring Creek, which the assessment notes is a non-fish bearing perennial tributary to Whitefish Lake.
The environmental assessment notes that Hellroaring Basin would continue to be closed to skiing on April 1 for grizzly bear habitat security, in addition to other steps taken to minimize the project’s impact on other wildlife such as Canada lynx and wolverines.
Recreation in the basin during spring, summer and fall, excluding road Road 9790 and the proposed Taylor Hellroaring Project trails, would not be promoted by the resort in order to reduce wildlife impacts. Bicycle use would also be prohibited on the service roads.
Helicopter flights for chairlift installation would be limited to five days for the construction of each chairlift. No flights or landings would be allowed on the north side of the Whitefish Range divide nor to the west or northwest of the Hellroaring drainage.
Gladed areas would retain between 75 and 125 trees per acre for an average of 100 trees per acre, or for an average of 20 foot spacing.
Cone-bearing whitebark pine trees that exhibit potential blister rust resistance would be protected in gladed areas.
The assessment does note that clearing ski runs, slope grading, and developing access routes and chairlift terminals can result in accelerated runoff and erosion.
The last fire in the area occurred in 1910, and the analysis notes that the ski runs would chairlift lines and gladed areas would break up the continuity of fuel in the basin.
“A combination of dead vegetation and continuous live vegetation from the forest floor to the upper forest canopy creates a complex ladder of fuel that when ignited under hot, dry and windy conditions, would have the potential to become a crown fire,” the assessment says that would be difficult to manage and likely leave “little or no surviving above ground vegetation.”
The analysis does include a no action alternative that would not implement new activities in the area, however, current activities would remain.
The project does follow the 2018 Flathead National Forest land management plan, according to the environmental assessment.
Pending approval from the Forest Service, the resort says the project would require multi-phases over a minimum of two years. No timeline has been set and will not be determined until after the resort receives direction and approval from the Flathead Forest.
Hellroaring Basin opened for the 1996-97 ski season for skiing and riding above the Highway to Heaven traverse. In 1997 the Hellroaring Chairlift/Chair 8, which had been on the north side of the mountain since 1985 as Chair 7, was moved to Hellroaring Basin opening the lower section of Hellroaring Basin including the Grand Junction area and Hell Fire ski run. For 20 years Hell Fire has been the only intermediate-level run in Hellroaring Basin.
The assessment is available online at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=55012.
Comments on the assessment will be accepted for 30 days. Specific comments on the project with supporting reasoning can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, please contact Rita Bennett, project leader, at email@example.com or 406-758-3528.