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Forest Service assessing new Big Mountain chairlift

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | August 26, 2021 1:47 PM

Flathead National Forest officials are seeking public input on Whitefish Mountain Resort's plan to install a new six-person chairlift from the Base Lodge area to the top of Inspiration Ridge.

The ski resort on Big Mountain unveiled the plan in April, saying the France-based company Leitner-Poma would install the new lift in summer 2022 and it would open for the 2022-23 ski season. It would replace the current three-person Chair 4, which was installed in 1978.

The Forest Service is involved because the top end of the new lift would be located on forestland within the Tally Lake Ranger District, where the resort has a permit to operate. The bottom end would be on resort property.

"The purpose of the proposed project is to increase skier circulation while utilizing existing terrain," District Ranger Bill Mulholland said in a scoping letter for the project issued Wednesday. "It would also relieve congestion of the main Chair 1 ski lift and Base Lodge area on high traffic days."

From the top of the new lift, skiers would be able to access most of the upper mountain terrain, including the Ptarmigan Bowl, the south ridge of Hellroaring Basin and runs to the east off Inspiration Ridge. It also would provide access to Chair 5 and the East Rim.

The public has until Sept. 1 to weigh in on the proposal before the Forest Service completes its analysis of potential environmental impacts. Forest Service spokeswoman Tami MacKenzie said the agency also has requested an assessment from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on potential impacts to threatened species.

Comments can be emailed to comments-northern-flathead-tally-lake@usda.gov with "Chair 4 Project" in the subject line, or mailed to project leader Tad Wehunt with the Tally Lake Ranger Station at 650 Wolfpack Way in Kalispell.

Questions can be directed to Wehunt at 406-758-5352 or william.wehunt@usda.gov.

MULHOLLAND SAID the new lift would stretch about 7,200 feet and be supported by 25 new towers — eight on resort property and 17 on national forestland. Installing the new towers would require the use of helicopters for about five days, he said.

Construction would require "minimal" clearing of trees along the lift route, Mulholland said. Crews would have to remove two islands of trees totaling about 96,000 square feet.

"The Forest Service will determine the value of merchantable trees, and [the resort] will be billed accordingly," he wrote. "Other trees and slash material would not be removed from the project area, and possible methods of disposal would include lop and scatter, or limb and leave in place on the ground to provide wildlife habitat."

The old Chair 4 towers, he wrote, "would be excavated with heavy equipment, although some located in places too steep for equipment would be dug by hand, and some drilling and blasting may be required."

The top terminal of the new lift would be just below the old Chair 5 building, which now houses communications equipment. No trees would have to be removed in the area. Crews would have to grade about 40,000 square feet.

"Chair 4 is a top-drive lift, requiring power to the top terminal, so trenching would be needed to extend power from an existing line buried approximately 450 feet to the north," Mulholland wrote.

"The old corridor will not be maintained as a ski run and [will be] allowed to revegetate naturally," he wrote. "In addition, the old Chair 4 terminal buildings will be removed, leaving only the concrete footers, and the towers will be relocated to the new Chair 4 corridor."

Assistant editor Chad Sokol may be reached at 406-758-4439 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com.