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Manitoba Makeover

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Nestled near the Tenderfoot Range on the Seward Highway, Manitoba Mountain is a popular site for backcountry skiing.

“It’s the iconic backcountry place in the central Kenai Mountains,” said Pete Sprague, a local skier.

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Mountain Rider’s Alliance, an organization founded in part by Hope resident Dave Scanlan, now wants to develop the area so that more people can access and use the mountain.

The Manitoba Mountain Ski Area Restoration project would be a community-focused outdoor recreation hot spot, Scanlan said.

Someday, the facility might include Nordic trails, downhill areas for a beginners and advanced skiers, outdoor education for all ages, and access to backcountry skiing. But in the immediate future — next winter is the soonest tracks will be laid — the ski area will likely be contained to mild slopes and cross-country trails.

At all stages, the Mountain Rider’s Alliance intends to keep infrastructure to a minimum.

But for some skiers, like Sprague, any development is too much.

Sprague, who averages 30 trips a year to the area and has been on Manitoba eight times already this year, said he thinks development is not a good route for the region.

“That will absolutely destroy what is a beautiful, safe, spectacular space,” Sprague said.

Initially, the project will focus on the state-owned land at the bottom of the mountain. MRA is looking at developing a Nordic center for cross-country skiing and a rope tow for simple downhill skiing. That’s in part, according to Scanlan, because the U.S. Forest Service — which manages the top half of the mountain — hasn’t permitted a new ski area in 30 years, the agency told MRA representatives last spring.

If the Forest Service sees an existing area on the lower part of the mountain, the federal permitting could go more smoothly.

Before MRA can lay tracks, the project needs two different permits from the state. The first is a Land Use Permit, which is typically a 90-day process, Scanlan said. Once the Mountain Rider’s have that permit in hand, they can start using the area. But some work will have to wait until they have a Land Lease. Acquiring that permit can take three years, Scanlan said.

MRA plans to file for both permits simultaneously. Scanlan said the organization hopes to have the green light on the Land Use Permit by fall, so it can start working on the Nordic center in time for the 2012-13 ski season.

The Land Use Permit requires that any man-made development be removable within 48 hours. Scanlan said MRA will focus on very low-impact assets for the start of its work — yurts for first aid and a warming hut, outhouses, a temporary rope tow and Nordic trails.

The project would require two other pieces of development — a short access road from Mile 49 of the Seward Highway, and a bridge over Canyon Creek.

But Sprague said that adding the developments will reduce the wilderness appeal.

“Some places need to be just backcountry, and Manitoba’s one of them,” he said.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t have drive-up access, the area still gets quite a bit of use. Sprague said there are regularly 20 or so people there on any given weekend day.

The new area is meant to get more people skiing and provide an alternative to Alyeska Resort.

“We all need ways to get out in winter,” Scanlan said.

Tony Doyle, a backcountry enthusiast from Kenai, said he has been skiing Manitoba for 30 years. He’s 52, and one day he might like to be able to use the rope tow, he said.

“I like the idea of making the mountain more accessible for more people and generating some economic activity,” he said.

The mountain will be more than just a ski area, Scanlan said. A goal of the project is to provide an educational platform.

Scanlan said MRA is working with a class at Alaska Pacific University to help shape the outdoor education offerings. The group hopes to offer avalanche training and wilderness survival courses, and also introduce kids to safe outdoor recreation.

“Just getting them used to the idea of playing outside again,” Scanlan said.

Scanlan said MRA wants the project to be community-driven. That means getting community input on all phases of the work, a process that began with meetings in Anchorage, Girdwood, Hope, Cooper Landing, Moose Pass, Seward and Soldotna last spring.

At each meeting, MRA handed out a survey gauging local feelings about the project. The majority — about 98 out of 103 — of the responses were positive, Scanlan said.

Hope, Cooper Landing and Moose Pass residents were particularly enthusiastic about the project, he said. Those communities are looking for ways to diversify their economy. Developing as a winter destination is one way to do that.

The project will provide room for local businesses to step in and grow. Scanlan said MRA hopes to see private businesses offer lessons, rentals, food and beverage service, and even guiding once the area grows.

Sprague said he appreciated the need for winter business in the area, and would rather see the project developed at a different site, such as the old ski area near Summit Lake.

“There’s other slopes that I think would work,” he said.

Scanlan said there will be future opportunities for public comment, and the site is still up for discussion.

Doyle said he thinks the permitting process and public comment will help develop a shape of the project that retains a good feeling for all users.

Doyle will likely ski at the site if developed. But it wouldn’t be the same.

“I like the quiet,” Doyle said.

Right now, MRA is involving a variety of partners to take the project to the next level. Through a partnership with the University of Alaska Anchorage, students are doing some of the survey work on the project.

They’ll provide detailed mapping of the access road and beginner tow area, which is key information for figuring out a big component of the project — funding.

The mapping will allow for cost estimates. Then MRA, a limited liability corporation, can start looking for funding from investors to get the project going.

Right now, students from the Presidio Business School in San Francisco are working on an investor package, Scanlan said. The project has already seen some investor interest, both locally and from Outside.

The alliance will also offer an option for individuals to purchase a membership, giving them discounted access and a say in how the mountain is managed. The management voice will be through a membership advisory council that will be asked to weigh in on new plans, and provide feedback from members on how the mountain is running so far.

Members will also get a discount at other MRA sites — those are in the works in Montana and Maine.

The project is a long time coming. Scanlan said he has worked on various incarnations of the project for the last six years.

At one point, the plan was to develop ski opportunities on Bone Mountain, near Snug Harbor Road. Working with the state of Alaska and Forest Service refocused that project to the Summit Lake area, where there was a history of downhill skiing.

The local group working on that effort — the Kenai Peninsula Community Ski Foundation — hit a roadblock when it was denied federal nonprofit status. But the project stayed in Scanlan’s mind.

Then Scanlan connected with Jamie Schectman, who had been working on forming a ski cooperative in Canada, and the two formed Mountain Rider’s Alliance.

Commercialized ski ares have taken skiing “further away from its roots,” Scanlan said. MRA wants to take it back to those roots.

A major facet of MRA’s development plans is trying to limit development and environmental impact. Scanlan said the organization wants to stay away from commercialized development and preserve what MRA sees as a more authentic outdoor experience.

That philosophy is evident at many levels.

One is the lift designs.

The current plans call for a series of surface lifts, meaning that the rider is always connected to the mountain while being transported to a new place. That’s cheaper than a chair-type lift, and less invasive on the mountain.

“It’s small, it’s rustic, it’s down home,” Scanlan said.

As part of its goal to have a light footprint, MRA is working on plans for alternative energy on the mountain. Right now, the entity is looking at wind and micro hydro as two possible sources of power. A solar array might also be appropriate, Scanlan said.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@peninsulaclarion.com.

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