The Battle of Big Bear : Ski Resorts’ Impact on Owl, Squirrel Habitat May Derail Expansion Plans


For ski resort President Dick Kun,the battle line runs right along chairlift No. 4 as it eases up the mountainside.

Off to one side, skiers and snowboarders swish across man-made snow spewed out of pipes just a few hours earlier. On the other side of the chairlift, a stand of towering pines offers cover to an adversary that Kun has never even seen, an opponent that has brought Kun’s family-run business, Snow Summit ski resort, to its knees: cute little creatures cloaked in feather and fur.

They are California spotted owls--cousins to the species that sparked the Great Northwest Timber Debate--and San Bernardino flying squirrels, a subspecies of the fellow who inspired a cartoon character with a goofy sidekick named Bullwinkle. And they are supposedly living all around these mountains, among the very trees that Kun wants to clear to install another chairlift and ski run to help satiate the appetite of ski-starved Southern California.


Because the California spotted owl and the San Bernardino flying squirrel are deemed sensitive and are candidates for listing as threatened or endangered species, the U.S. Forest Service is blocking plans by Snow Summit and neighboring Bear Mountain ski resorts to expand their ski runs.

The owls and flying squirrels, both nocturnal animals, live atop the pines that carpet these mountainsides. The owls claim a territory of a mile or more in radius; little is known about the bug- and seed-eating squirrels, except that they are preyed upon by the owls.

Environmentalists say that for every tree that is cut for the sake of a ski run, the creatures’ habitat is precariously shrunk.

There is no head count of flying squirrels, but one spotted owl study suggests that the population is dropping by an alarming 17% annually, perhaps because of the toll the recent drought had on the rodent population upon which the owls feed. Whether the species will bounce back is not known.

The debate over preserving the spotted owl and flying squirrel habitat may not carry the severe economic-versus-environmental consequences of the owl-versus-lumberjack debate in the Pacific Northwest, or even that of the nemesis of Southern California developers, the gnatcatcher. But up here in the San Bernardino Mountains, where the economy is steeped in the snow-play business, the question of who controls the conifer forest--owls and squirrels, or man--is a matter of some philosophical discussion.

Held captive by the issue are the region’s two largest ski resorts, which are visited by more than 15,000 snow enthusiasts each weekend day--three-quarters of a million people or more over the winter.

The Bear Mountain ski resort wants to increase its ski run area from 190 acres to about 300 acres, but operators have been told it can only grow to about 257 acres for now--and only by first buying expensive private property as a 2-for-1 replacement for the amount of owl and squirrel habitat it wants to eliminate through tree removal.

That requirement “may put the final nail in the coffin of expansion at Bear Mountain,” executives said in a printed summary of the issue. “This is a further representation that recreational uses are being sacrificed for wildlife preservation without any consideration for this unique resource in an economy that is dependent on tourism.”

Kun, whose expansion plans for Snow Summit were previously approved by the Forest Service--and then rejected--puts it more bluntly.

“I’m frustrated by the general environmental movement, which has exaggerated dangers on every front,” he said. “Environmental rules and regulations are a danger to our way of life, and are unnecessary. Much of (the environmental movement) is hysterical, distorted, phony and anti-human being.

“We’re providing hundreds of thousands of people with a close-to-nature experience. We were in the environment business before environmentalists became popular,” he said.

“I’m not saying that an open ski run doesn’t affect the spotted owl. We have adverse impacts. The question is, what are the trade-offs for man, in terms of the local economy and offering healthy outdoor recreation?”

Bear Mountain Vice President Rich McGarry has similar gripes. “Skiing is a non-exploitive utilization of the forest. It’s not like timber or mining. We’re here, selling the environmental experience.”

Even San Bernardino National Forest officials share the frustration; one of the forest’s missions is to provide recreational opportunities for people.

“We’re in a quandary. Our guidelines seem to clash,” said Paul Bennett, the administrator of winter sports permits for the Forest Service. Snow Summit and Bear Mountain have permits to operate on Forest Service land, for which they pay, together, about $1 million a year.

“Our goal, most of the time, is to allow for reasonable expansion of ski areas, to provide downhill skiing and other recreation opportunities to meet the public demand,” he said.

“But we have numerous legal requirements and direction--ranging from the Endangered Species Act to the National Forest Management Act and our own Forest Service manuals--to avoid any actions that might cause a species to become threatened or endangered.”

As in other environmental issues, some mitigation can be accomplished. As new ski runs are permitted, their width can be reduced from 250 feet to 150 feet--a more difficult run for the skier, but narrow enough to allow the squirrels to soar from tree to tree as they move along the mountainside.

But wildlife biologists say too many ski runs down the mountain could ultimately discourage the movement of spotted owls and squirrels between territories.

“We’re not so much worried about the loss of one or two animals because of the loss of trees, as we are worried about fragmenting and isolating populations of spotted owl and flying squirrel,” said Robin Butler, a Forest Service biologist.

Such fragmentation, she said, not only discourages the genetic mixing of the species but could expose an isolated population to decimation through a catastrophe such as blight, disease or wildfire.

Such issues were not at the forefront decades ago as the ski resorts were being developed. When the first ski runs were designed, resort operators sought to leave as many trees as possible, simply for aesthetics.

In 1986, Snow Summit sought to add another 100 acres of ski runs to its 200 acres.

At the time, the Forest Service admitted that it knew little about the spotted owl and told Snow Summit that in exchange for permission to add ski runs, the resort should finance a study of the California spotted owl. Snow Summit agreed, and picked up the $80,000 tab.

The study was Snow Summit’s undoing: It showed that Southern California had inadequately managed spotted owl habitat, and that the owl’s population was on the decline.

No sooner had Snow Summit developed 30 of the 100 new acres for skiing than the Forest Service blew the whistle. The government told Snow Summit that expansion had to stop until an even more exhaustive assessment of the California spotted owl in Southern California could be conducted.

“We had a contract, and we did our part, and now the Forest Service is saying it’s null and void,” Kun said. “We’re talking about a puny little square mile, out of thousands, in the pursuit of downhill skiing, and now they’re saying we can’t enhance an area that is dedicated to recreation.”

Bear Mountain ski resort met similar roadblocks but was told expansion was possible if it would agree to buy at least twice as much acreage of owl and flying squirrel habitat as it proposed eliminating. The replacement land would have to be private property in imminent danger of being developed and lost to wildlife forever.

Forest officials said Bear Mountain could avoid the development moratorium confronting Snow Summit because the 2-for-1 land exchange would presumably more than make up for the trees sacrificed for the new ski runs.

“It’s frustrating, but if you want to play the game, these are the rules,” Bear Mountain’s McGarry said. “You can get as angry as you want at the Forest Service, but the reality is, this is their playing field.

“We’ve invested $30 million in this place, and the only (other) option is to walk away from it. We need to expand, because there’s a tremendous demand in this region for skiing.”

Kun said Snow Summit is not about to succumb to the Forest Service’s “extortion"--to use his word--for replacement habitat. “It would put a capital burden on us that we can’t afford. It would close us.”