A battle for the land – and soul – of the West

  • Stephen Trimble
 

Denver native Stephen Trimble fell in love with the West from the back seat of the family car. On summer field trips with his mother and geologist father, Trimble developed a fine eye for red-rock country and the light that filled unspoiled valleys and vistas. He's since produced gorgeous photography books and insightful natural and human histories. Now, examining a single moment on a single, no-longer-unspoiled patch of land, he's written possibly his most comprehensive book.

That patch of land is home to the Snowbasin ski development on Mount Ogden, Utah. The moment in question is the men's downhill race during the 2002 Winter Olympics. Wondering what it would "take" to bring a racer to the finish line, Trimble launches into a complicated, often maddening tale of a property dispute that resembles a thousand similar battles in today's West. Billionaire developer Earl Holding, the 63rd richest man in the country, manipulates U.S. Forest Service officials and politicians to buy public land for a ski resort that will host the Olympics. Holding's power and cunning trump the wishes of Ogden Valley residents and others who want to preserve the shrinking open spaces of the West.

It's an old story, but Trimble tells it in a new way, avoiding simplistic Good-Guy-vs.-Bad-Guy characterizations. You may never come across a more fair-minded yet critical portrayal of a wealthy developer. Earl Holding loves his work and wants to build the best-run resorts possible. One U.S. Forest Service official who helped Holding most likely did so because of his own love of skiing, rather than for darker reasons or out of simple naiveté. And when Trimble buys his own swatch of unspoiled land near Capitol Reef National Park, he has to acknowledge that, "Just like Earl, I am about to hire earth movers to reshape this land to suit my own needs . . . "

Ultimately, Trimble ends on a hopeful note. Thinking back on Earl Holding, then considering his own occasional run-ins with his new Utah neighbors, he concludes that civic health and the best interests of the land require us to "start the conversation before a crisis." How best to bargain for what's left of Eden? Keep everyone talking with open hearts and open minds.