Matthew Drake: "It takes time, persistence and patience."

Ask Mt. Hood Meadows CEO Matthew Drake about his vision for the future, and he chooses his words very carefully.

Drake and Meadows have been trying for years to add parking spaces, improve mountain transportation and pull off a huge land deal that would make them a major property owner in the nearby Mt. Hood town of Government Camp. But Drake is extremely cautious about discussing the details of these and other planned developments.

“We have to be careful about what we say and when we say it because that flies in the face of the process," Drake explained in a recent interview. "And we have to honor the fact that we have a landlord... We want to be transparent, yet we have to be respectful of our landlord.”

His landlord, of course, is the U.S. Forest Service. Meadows operates under a special use permit with the Forest Service, and any and all new resort developments must go through the Forest Service and the labyrinthine public processes designed to protect federal land from mismanagement.

That puts Matthew Drake, the son of resort founder Franklin Drake, in a difficult position. He must constantly contend with the complexity of those public processes, the understaffed nature of the public agency overseeing them, and the eagle-eyed community of Oregon watchdogs who have shown little hesitation to file lawsuits against projects they deem dubious. Those factors ensure that any new developments on Mount Hood will come slowly and methodically, if they happen at all.

A new parking lot near Hood River Meadows has been planned since 2007. The land exchange with the Forest Service has been in the works since 2003.

The Twilight Parking Lot

The Forest Service recently granted preliminary approval for Meadows' plan for a 12-acre, 878-space Twilight Parking Lot off Highway 35 near the Meadows Nordic Center. The publicly available details can be found on this Forest Service website.

The basic goal would be to use a new lot near HRM for overflow parking on busy days, with regular shuttles transporting guests to the main base area. The lot would be accessed by a new left-turn lane off of 35, and it would contain a new Nordic Center lodge to replace the current one.

Meadows, which employs about 800 people over the course of a year and 450 at the peak of the season, gets about 400,000-500,000 skier/snowboarder visits per season. Even in a sub-par snow year, with visits down 18 percent, the resort has been parked out three times in 2013-14 and has had to shuttle guests from remote locations in Welches and along Hwy. 35. 

Meadows recently lost about 420 parking spaces when the Forest Service outlawed parking on access roads for safety reasons, and they are forbidden to shuttle guests from parking lots at nearby federal Sno-Parks such as White River and Teacup Lakes. Thus the push for a new parking lot within the Meadows permit area, connected with an expanded shuttle system. The new Twilight Lot would add capacity for 878 vehicles to bring the resort's full parking capacity to 3,526 vehicles.

Drake would not offer an estimate of when the Twilight Lot might be completed or how much it might cost. “I don’t want to talk specific numbers other than to say I’m sure it’s going to be expensive and will have to be done over time," he said.

The project could become even more expensive and time-consuming as it meets resistance from Mount Hood preservationists such as Tom Kloster, who wrote a detailed critique of the parking lot proposal on his Wy'East blog, arguing that the new parking lot would be environmentally destructive and unnecessary, since skiing and snowboarding visits are actually declining because the sport is getting too expensive.

Other critiques are certain to surface as the Forest Service opens the process to the public, including objections to the loss of some quality Nordic skiing trails. Legal actions similar to the lawsuit that has stalled the building of mountain bike trails at Timberline are always a possibility.

A new lodge for beginners and their families

The read or skim the environmental impact statement with full details about Meadows' plans involving parking and construction, click here.

In addition to the new Twilight Parking Lot, the Meadows plan also calls for the relocation of the Meadows maintenance shop, away from the main base to an area closer to the Sunrise Lot. This move would allow Meadows to redevelop the shop building into something more appealing for guests, such as a new lodge for beginner skiers and snowboarders and their families, with an expanded learning area around where the snowcats are currently stored.

Transforming the maintenance yard into a more compatible resort amenity will probably be the first phase of development, and Drake seems relatively comfortable making the case for something he sees as long overdue. In his view, moving the maintenance yard away from the base would create a better home for the resort's fleet of 16 groomers and their various fueling, maintenance and repair needs.

"That shop was built in 1968 and we are lucky to have what we have," Drake said. "But it is way beyond its useful life and it’s just not appropriate in that location any more.”

The new lodge could dovetail with another significant change to the Meadows base area involving an expanded transit center. The resort already buses in about 23 percent of guests and owns and operates a fleet of about a dozen shuttles, and handling all those vehicles requires a system and a certain amount of parking lot space. Drake would like to increase the number of park-and-rides and shuttles and the transit center to serve them, and if the big land exchange in Government Camp goes through he will probably have to.

A land deal 12 years in the making

Over a decade ago environmental groups and fruit orchard owners blocked a proposal by Mt. Hood Meadows to expand the resort around the area of the Cooper Spur Mountain Resort, which is owned by Meadows and has overnight lodging. Part of the compromise deal to stop the expansion was a land exchange between Meadows and the Forest Service.

Under the land deal, Meadows would trade 770 acres of private land around Cooper Spur for about 120 acres of Forest Service land just uphill from the main strip in Govy. The exchange was specifically mentioned in the Mt. Hood Wilderness Bill signed by President Obama in 2009, with an 18-24 month time frame allowed for the deal to close. Five years later, the deal is not even close to done.

The two-year deadline in the bill "was really short-sighted," said Drake. "There are very few exchanges that are consummated in that time frame just because the process takes time.”

Meadows has had to sort out all sorts of boundary issues, mapping errors, easements and buffers, plus negotiate leases with the Hoodland Fire District and the Mt. Hood Ski Patrol, and craft an agreement with RLK Company over the right of way for a Mount Hood gondola connecting Govy to Timberline Lodge. And still they are far from finished with the 62-step bureaucratic process that guides federal land exchanges.

The property still has yet to be appraised, and a complicated NEPA process still lies ahead.

The appraisal process will be one to watch closely. Drake says zoning buffers, wetlands and mapping disputes have cut in half the amount of land that Meadows will be able to develop in Govy, from 120 to about 60 acres. But still, you can build a lot of cabins and condos and hotel rooms on 60 acres if you get permission. The area is zoned residential, and it could provide exactly the sort of on-the-mountain lodging that Meadows lacks. 

There also has been speculation for years about the viability of an aerial connection from Government Camp to Meadows, over the White River Glacier to Vista Ridge. A gondola to connect Govy with Timberline is a real possibility, and a spur line from Timberline to Vista is certainly doable from an engineering perspective. But that development remains a long-shot. "For the immediate future, park and ride shuttling makes the most sense for us," said Drake

Meadows plans to double its fleet of shuttles over the next five years or so. As for the overall vision for the land exchange, Drake said, “The vision will be shaped by the outcome of the exchange. And the outcome of the exchange won’t be known until probably mid-to-late 2015 because of where they are in the appraisal process and the NEPA process.”

He continued, "We have a lot of passion for managing this special use permit area and building it out in an extremely thoughtful way that is appropriate to Mount Hood. We want to leave behind something that will endure the test of time and be sustainable. That’s one of the reasons why these projects take a long time. We started on the land exchange in 2003. And the Twilight Lot, we started on that in 2007. It takes time, persistence and patience, and out of that we have become a better company.”