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Lookout Pass prepares for $20 million project

by Nick Rotunno
| November 10, 2010 8:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - As Phil Edholm demonstrated Tuesday morning, Google Earth can be a very useful tool.

Speaking at the Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce Upbeat Breakfast, Edholm used the computer program to outline expansion plans at Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area, a popular mountain located on the Idaho/Montana border.

The 20-year, roughly $20 million project will potentially increase the size of the ski area by 2,000 acres, adding numerous chairlifts and up to 35 additional trails (Lookout currently has 34 named runs).

"What I've learned to do over the years," said Edholm, Lookout's president and CEO, "is to find ground truth. (I've been) hiking the different aspects. So I have literally for years been out in the field, looking at this terrain."

Google Earth displays satellite images of anyplace in the world, offering a bird's-eye view of landscapes, roads and settlements. On a large projector screen, Edholm showed a picture of Lookout Pass and the surrounding Bitterroot Mountains, pointing out features and noting various details.

"We think that we may have a chance of cutting in new runs in the summer of 2012," Edholm said.

The multi-phase expansion will develop rugged, forested peaks near the borders of the existing ski area, he pointed out - Second Peak, a high promontory west of Lookout, and Third Peak, farther to the south. Both mountains are close to the St. Regis Basin, with summits over 6,000 feet.

Lookout operates on national forest land in both Idaho and Montana. Edholm and the Forest Service are now going through a pre-screening process, presenting the plan to backcountry and Nordic skiers, mountaineers and snowmobilers who recreate in the border area.

"There is a lot of popular use up in the St. Regis Basin," said Kent Wellner, Idaho Panhandle National Forest recreational program manager. "We want to make sure we get a good representation from the Montana side and the Idaho/Washington side."

Once the screening process is complete, the Forest Service will analyze Phase I of the expansion: the development of Second Peak. If Edholm's plan meets the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Lookout will be free to move forward.

During the NEPA process, a number of factors will be considered, Wellner explained. The Forest Service will look at the social effects of expansion, the environmental impact of heavy construction - including the placement of lift lines, supports and terminals - and wildlife issues.

"We've got concerns up there with potential lynx habitat," Wellner added.

The Forest Service will also accept public comments during the NEPA process, he said.

A number of skiers and snowboarders attended the breakfast Tuesday. Erik Anderson of Coeur d'Alene has never skied at Lookout, but he said the new expansion might lure him to the mountain.

"I think it sounds exciting, and it's good to see businesses looking to grow in this tight economy," he said. "I think having more terrain up there would make it more likely I would go check it out."

In its 75th year of operation, Lookout Pass draws more than 60,000 skiers per year. And historically, Edholm said, a mountain that expands its terrain will experience a 20 percent increase in skier visits.

"I've been a pass-holder for 20 years up there, and I'm really excited," said Patrick Fisher, a skier from Coeur d'Alene.

Lookout plans to add a 15,000-square-foot building as well, Edholm said, adjacent to the existing lodge. He said he wants the mountain to be as "green as can be," and would like to eventually use self-contained fuel cell technology to power the hill.

He likes to bring his kids to Lookout, he said, because of the mountain's family-friendly atmosphere. But sometimes Fisher will venture off the beaten trail, exploring the snowy peaks of the Bitterroots. With more developed acreage and additional lifts, Lookout's expansion will make backcountry access easier, he said, providing a quick route toward Stevens Peak and elsewhere.

"(I like) the family-oriented end of things, as well as the cost benefits, easy access to I-90," he said of Lookout. "The expanded area, plus the capability to be able to go backcountry - it'll be a huge benefit."

"My goal is to use this technology instead of bringing in a power feed from two or three miles away," Edholm said.

Claudia Moberg listened to the presentation and came away impressed. The Post Falls resident occasionally cross-country skis, a winter sport that's also available at Lookout Pass, on the old Northern Pacific railroad grade.

"I think it's great," she said of the expansion. "More power to him. More power to the skiers."

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