(First published in the January 24, 2018 issue of City Pages)
Granite Peak’s expansion plan could be approved by the DNR this year. But the active movement against it might gain an ally from Minnesota
More than four years ago Granite Peak owner Charles Skinner announced plans to expand the ski area to cover more of Rib Mountain State Park. The move would include more beginner and intermediate runs, something the ski hill was sorely missing in its bid to attract skiing families.
The expansion was such big news for the area that Wausau Mayor Jim Tipple and Wausau Police Chief Jeff Hardel were in attendance, even though Granite Peak isn’t in Wausau city limits, it’s in the town of Rib Mountain (mostly in Rib Mountain State Park). But the economic effects of all those thousands of visitors extend across the metro area.
With hundreds of small ski areas closing in recent decades, expanding ski runs — plus adding ski in, ski out lodging for families — is a necessity, Skinner said at the time, and still contends now. The expansion would make the ski hill more competitive in today’s market, the sales pitch went, and be an economic boost for the region. Already, plenty of out of town visitors take to the slopes there. (I once heard French, German and Russian on a short walk from the chalet to the parking lot.)
That announcement came in December 2014 — more than four years ago, and both Tipple and Hardel have since retired. Also since then:
• The plan has undergone numerous changes, aiming to appease both nearby residents and a group that formed in opposition to the plan, Leave Rib Mountain Alone.
• The plan has been sidelined as the DNR deals with a controversial golf club project at Kohler Country Club, says Granite Peak’s project manager, Peter Biermeier.
• A complaint filed by Domtar (the paper mill in Rothschild) with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over Granite Peak’s water usage further hampered the project.
Needless to say, anyone looking at the hill can see that neither the expansion, nor the lodging, has happened yet.
That could change this year.
For one, Granite Peak came to a settlement agreement with Domtar, Biermeier says.
And the plan has been adjusted many times, adding additional hiking/snowshoeing trails while preserving many of the existing trails of Rib Mountain State Park— some of them would simply have ski runs over the top of them in winter but open to hikers when the snow melts.
The expansion area was reduced by more than 30 acres. The revised plan increases the total ski area to 154.7 acres, with only 5.6 acres expanding into the state park’s natural area, and results in fewer trees being removed. The original proposal would have increased the total area to 186.7 acres.
And Granite Peak plans to build a parking lot and bathroom facilities at the base, where Turkey Vulture trails begin at the end of Grouse Lane. This would benefit visitors to the park year-round.
Biermeier says the plan should go through a final public comment period and approval hopefully this year. But that will begin with some negotiating with the town of Rib Mountain regarding water and sewer, increased traffic to roads, and other infrastructure concerns.
Skiers and snowboarders in January hit the slopes at Granite Peak. The ski area is hopeful the DNR will approve the final expansion plan this year, and work can begin in 2020.
Viewed from a distance, Granite Peak’s ski runs resemble scratches going down the otherwise tree-covered slopes of Rib Mountain. More ski runs means more man-made changes to the area that are evident year-round.
The ski area sits on both land it owns privately and state-owned park land it leases; hence the DNR involvement. The Leave Rib Mountain Alone group has been watching the process carefully. The group gathered nearly 5,000 signatures against the proposal in 2016 and would simply prefer that Granite Peak not expand any further, says Nancy Anderson.
But Anderson says there might be a compromise, and maybe it could be similar to what’s happening in Lutsen, Minn.
Skinner also owns a ski operation near Lake Superior in Lutsen, where he has another proposal in the works. A proposal for the Lutsen Mountains Ski and Summer Resort presented last spring offered a similar expansion of ski runs, with an identical justification.
Rory Scoles, owner of Lutsen Recreation ski shop is leading a group opposed to the Lutsen expansion. His argument: National level data as well as his own experience as a shop owner tell him that lift-supported, resort-style skiing is on the downswing and has been for a while. The only version of skiing making gains is backcountry skiing, where skiers get around on their own power and ski down, largely using the natural environment. Scoles and a non-profit group of skiers are making a push to leave the Lutsen area alone for backcountry skiing instead.
And he may be headed to Rib Mountain next.
Data seems to back Scoles’s assertions. According to the National Ski Areas Association, ski visits in the Midwest have generally trended downward. Between 1979 and 1989, according to an NSAA report, ski visits were between 7-9 million per year in the Midwest. There were around 8 million visits in the 2007-08 season, and declining since, varying between 5.5 million and 7.6 million. That could be explained in part by the recession. But while other areas seemed to have mostly recovered, that recovery missed the Midwest, the data shows.
The numbers of active skiers and snowboarders are also on the decline, according to another NSAA report, though it’s not as severe. There are fewer skiers and snowboarders in the U.S. than there were 10 years ago — 9.2 million skiers now compared to 10.4 million a decade ago.
Scoles, whose ski shop is at the base of the Lutsen Mountains, says that resort-style skiing has a roughly 10% recidivism rate. In other words, of 10 people who try skiing, only one will come again. Cost is the biggest reason, Scoles says.
The Lutsen Mountains expansion is necessary to its survival as 300 ski areas have closed in the U.S. since the Skinner family purchased the ski area in 1980, according to the introduction in the Lutsen Mountain master plan. Skinner made the same argument for Granite Peak’s expansion.
The Lutsen expansion would almost double the size of the ski area from 180 acres to 320 acres, according to the master plan, and aims to double ski visits from 100,000 per year to 200,000. Those are similar numbers to what Skinner’s Granite Peak expansion is expected to produce: 110,000 visits to 200,000.
Scoles is part of a non-profit group applying for a permit to preserve the Lutsen expansion area for backcountry skiing instead. Scoles says he is eager to visit Granite Peak this winter to see if Rib Mountain would work for this kind of skiing as well. Other than some removal of underbrush, backcountry skiing largely leaves the environment alone.
Expansions at either Granite Peak or Lutsen don’t make business sense, considering the decline of alpine skiing, Scoles says, even though his business would stand to benefit from an expansion if it brings in more skiers. He posited that Skinner might be prepping the areas to sell to a larger ski resort conglomerates. Plenty of small ski areas have done the same in recent years, he says.
Anderson has been in contact with Scholes, and while the idea of backcountry skiing on Rib Mountain hasn’t yet been brought up with many members of the group, she said the idea fits better with the group’s mission since it is less invasive of the natural environment.
A DNR report included on the master plan amendment’s DNR page highlights some of the important plant and animal species on the mountain. The state park provides habitat for “numerous forest interior birds, many of which are rare or declining and are considered to be Species of Greatest Conservation Need” according to the report. It’s also an important habitat for bats. And the town of Rib Mountain is known for harboring rare snail species; the report recommended further study of them and their distribution.
Changing to demands
The plan Granite Peak submitted changed a lot in response to concerns from residents and neighbors. Granite Peak held two public meetings; one with the public at large, and another with the neighborhood. There were also several smaller meetings with property owners and the Friends of Rib Mountain group. These were all in 2017, with the last in December of that year, Biermeier says.
The final plan took all the input into account and designers tweaked the plan to incorporate as much as they could, Biermeier says, scaling back the footprint into the state park, adding hiking and snowshoe trails and preserving as much existing trails as possible. Granite Peak officials presented that tweaked plan to the DNR in the first quarter of 2018.
The state’s delay in approving the plan was caused in part because of other big plans in the works the DNR had to deal with; namely a controversy with a golf course proposed by Kohler Company along the Lake Michigan shoreline; a reduced DNR staff adds to those woes. DNR officials have now reviewed Granite Peak’s plan and made two visits to Rib Mountain. They’ve spent numerous hours with planners and reviewed the comments from the public as well as the plan itself.
The next step is to go to the public with the DNR’s version of the plan, and that goes to the DNR Board. Biermeier says he hopes the DNR Board will give its final approval yet this year; he anticipates it being late summer. If approved in 2019, Granite Peak could start work in 2020. There will still be building permits to obtain, and Granite Peak would have to work with the town of Rib Mountain on matters such as increased traffic. “We would have to present a plan to them based on what comes out of the DNR board,” Biermeier says.
Separately, Granite Peak owner Charles Skinner owns 25 acres of land for a possible ski-in, ski-out lodge. That plan is separate from the ski run expansion and not dependent on it. “They could be built now,” Biermeier says. “They could fill it because there is so much demand for ski in, ski out lodging.”
Another tweak to the plan: keeping ski runs 200 feet from the top of the hill. “The lift can’t be seen from the top trails at all,” Biermeier says.
And the concern about water draws for snow-making seems to be resolved. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year had received a complaint against Granite Peak, citing them for impacting their water flows on the Wisconsin River. According to the filing, the water drawn for snowmaking was impacting their hydro-electric dam.
That has now been worked out with Domtar, Biermeier says, and the filing won’t impact the ski hill or its expansion. “Domtar was gracious in their working with us,” Biermeier says. “I can’t thank them enough.”
According to the Aug. 28 Federal Register, a daily publication of the U.S. government highlighting various approvals and decisions, Domtar filed a request in July granting approval for FERC to allow Granite Peak to install the equipment to withdraw more water from Rib River, a tributary to the Wisconsin River. Granite Peak estimated it would withdraw 12 million gallons per day maximum during winter months, particularly November and December.
As for the notion of Granite Peak prepping for a sale? False, says Lisa Zilinsky, Granite Peak’s director of marketing. “Our motivation has always been to continue to run and operate as a family run business and it remains so. The owner has never discussed selling the ski area with larger ski resorts or any other company,” Zilinsky said in an email. Biermeier, in a follow up email with City Pages, echoed the same of both Granite Peak and Lutsen projects.
Zilinsky says skier visits have been steady in recent years, and season pass sales have been steadily increasing.
If all goes well, and the plan is indeed approved in 2019, Biermeier says Granite Peak hopes to start work on the project in 2020 and ready for thousands of more skiers soon thereafter.