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from the Los Angeles Times


Resort Raises Fears of Downhill Slide

Plans for a ski site in a sleepy former lumber town have residents afraid the project will ruin the natural habitat and their way of life.

From Associated Press

March 14, 2005

WESTWOOD, Calif. — For most of the last century, axes and saws carved a healthy living from the forest around this old lumber town. Now, years after logging declined and the mill closed, a developer envisions ski trails snaking their way through the remaining trees on Dyer Mountain.

If Dyer Mountain Associates achieves its dream, it will be the first new ski resort in California in more than a quarter of a century, complete with golf courses and homes for some 8,000 people in this onetime company town where the Sierra Nevada bows to the Cascades.

The vision is a grand one, intended as a more affordable alternative to Lake Tahoe, the state's premier ski destination 90 miles to the south. It is planned at a time when the ski industry remains flat after years of declines, but as California continues to grow.

Under the ambitious plan, expected to cost as much as $120 million in its first phase, promoters say development will blend into the natural setting. Meadows will be preserved, trails will encourage people to leave their cars behind and houses will be clustered on small lots in the woods.

"We think we can do this thing environmentally conscious, people-conscious and give an experience you can't get anywhere else," Dyer Mountain Associates spokesman Jerry Duffy said.

Some in this town of about 2,000 are skeptical that it can be done in a way that doesn't threaten wildlife habitat, spoil a reservoir and ruin small-town life in rural Lassen County, 192 miles northeast of San Francisco.

"I've been in those mountains all over," said Tony Finchem, 62, a painter who moved here from Santa Cruz 29 years ago. "I don't want to see a golf course go in, a ski hill, condos. They're talking about a little Tahoe there."

A report is due soon assessing the environmental effect of putting a resort across the Hamilton Branch of the Feather River from this town, setting the stage for a battle over the project's future. But an early round in the fight favored the developers.

Voters approved a county zoning change five years ago that required only a building permit for a ski area, golf courses and a clubhouse. The company, however, submitted the plan to the more rigorous environmental review process so it could build housing to turn a larger profit.

During a tour of the project, an aging grooming machine lurched its way up a logging road, spitting snow from its tanklike treads. Duffy, a retired forester, pointed out the village site where condos would sit atop shops.

From the top, sweeping views include snowcapped Mt. Lassen, the 10,457-foot peak that marks the southernmost gem on the volcanic chain of the Cascades. Lake Almanor sits at the western edge of the peak and the Mountain Meadows Reservoir stretches out of view to the east.

If the developers have their way, in two decades there will be about a dozen lifts carrying skiers from lake level, at 5,100 feet, to the 7,500-foot summit and lower peaks.

Opponents want to see the mountain remain the way it's preserved on a mural on Young's Super Market, with geese swooping over Mountain Meadows Reservoir, a mature buck standing guard near a doe and fawn and a bald eagle sitting in a treetop nest. The only sign of man in the painting is a single motorboat plying the placid waters.

Steve Robinson, president of the Mountain Meadows Conservancy, is worried that the serenity will be disrupted, causing air and water pollution and harming wildlife. There are 54 rare or endangered species in the meadows, including sandhill cranes and eagles as well as plants such as the volcanic rayless daisy and the marsh skullcap, he said.

Robinson, a former hippie who left San Diego in 1973 after getting out of the military, is typical of urban refugees who found paradise in the remains of the town built in 1915 by the Red River Lumber Co.

"It was isolated and no one knew we were here," he said. "We were hiding out."

He found a two-bedroom house for rent for $37.50 a month among the many abandoned houses and worked as a carpenter, tearing down the remains of the partly burned sawmill that closed in 1956.

Robinson said he was proud to live in a place derided by outsiders as "Wasteworld." He figures the moniker might discourage newcomers, though speculators have snapped up old homes recently and driven up prices.

Some homes are neatly kept. Others have fallen into disrepair or are abandoned and boarded up. Lighted Christmas decorations still hang from lamp posts in March.

A marketing study commissioned in 2000 found conditions were favorable to locate a ski area at the northern end of the Sierra Nevada, said Greg Cory, a vice president at resort planning firm Economics Research Associates.

"The big thing they're probably facing is the financial issue," Cory said. The company has spent $5.5 million on environmental studies and planning, Duffy said, but he's not discussing future funding.

Cory said he recommended scaling back housing and lodging because the resort planned to accommodate more than the 5,000 skiers the slopes could handle. There also were concerns that despite its north-facing slopes, which hold snow longer, the mountain — with a base 1,000 feet lower than Lake Tahoe resorts — was not high enough to keep snow late in the season.

Some reluctantly support the project as a means to bring jobs, boost a slumping rural economy, and maybe keep more of the town's youths from fleeing after high school, though change may be hard to accept.

"It's coming, it's started, the ball is rolling," said Don Biggs, 44, the town butcher. "But it's hard to let go of all the freedom we've had."