The stink over SkiLink


Updated Nov. 6, 2012

Utah's Wasatch Range promises wintry solitude and deep chutes of fluffy powder for backcountry skiers. Its forested watershed provides more than half of Salt Lake City's drinking water. But it's far from untouched: The area also hosts 11 ski resorts that draw thousands of visitors each year for lift-served skiing and snowboarding.

A Canadian developer recently proposed connecting two of those resorts with a high-speed gondola, a plan that requires the sale of 30 acres of national forest and bypasses some environmental and jurisdictional regulations. Its backers say the SkiLink project will create a $51 million economic boost and provide 500 jobs through a "ripple effect," as well as relieving the area's notorious winter traffic jams. Last fall, four Utah Congressmen introduced a bill to enable the land sale.

But backcountry skiers and greens are furious, saying the project fragments a designated roadless forest area, threatens the watershed, and does nothing to solve year-round traffic problems. One of the most outspoken opponents is Peter Metcalf, CEO of local gear company Black Diamond, who's been pushing back on Utah's pro-development, anti-conservation policies (see our story about Metcalf and the conservation work done by his and other gear companies, "The Hardest Climb").

In late October, Black Diamond, along with about 80 other snowsport and other local businesses, plus a handful of state and local officials, sent a strongly-worded letter to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the representatives backing the plan.

We are asking for you to vocally assist us in stopping the legislation that can only be described as a political end run around local governments and federal land use planning processes. While the downhill ski industry is an important element of the recreation economy, so too are the many other year-round activities that are dependent upon pristine backcountry destinations that are seemingly disappearing at an alarming rate nationwide. We need your assistance in advocating for real solutions facing this region, not hastily strewn together legislation that only benefits a few at the expense of millions and would set a horrible precedent.

The SkiLink bill, which went to the House last spring, directly conflicts with another piece of legislation focused on the same region, the Wasatch Wilderness and Watershed Protection Act, first introduced by Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson two years ago. That act would expand existing wilderness areas, create a new wilderness area, and emphasize watershed protection.

Neither bill will make it through Congress anytime soon, but critics of SkiLink say if the land-swap bill does pass and the project moves forward, it will set dangerous precedents. As the New York Times reported this summer:

Jeff Niermeyer, the director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities, one of the agencies responsible for watershed protection, recently stood over a map in his office showing 11 additional proposed ski area expansions beyond SkiLink. “It’s the cumulative effect of expansion that we are worried about,” he said. …

A similar debate over public land before the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City could offer a clue, critics of the project say, to how developers might try to break the limits that Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City and the United States Forest Service have imposed on development in the watershed.

In that controversy, Earl Holding, the owner of the Snowbasin ski area, pressed the Forest Service to privatize land at the base so he could build a lodge. Ultimately, Utah’s Congressional delegation championed a bill for a land swap, arguing that the new development was needed to host the 2002 Olympics. (Note from HCN: That 1996 land swap added more than two square miles to Snowbasin's base area.)

In August, when I was attending the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, local gear-company owner Bob Geiger, of Geigerrigs, told me what he thought about the SkiLink proposal: "Everybody just needs to sit down together and have some give and take. The conservationists are not being reasonable."

Some of that give-and-take has been happening recently on Black Diamond's website, where people both for and against the project are marshalling their arguments, like this comment from someone named Val Miller:

Whether you oppose this project for its threat to the watershed, whether you oppose it because it will convert a beautiful fork into a utility corridor, whether you oppose it because it transforms a place that exists outside the marketplace into a teller by which money is paid out and received, or whether you oppose it simply because Talisker (the developer) has acted in bad faith, has circumscribed the public at every step and unleashed its PR Machine to silence all protest: your opposition is sound.

Another commenter, Rick S., wrote:

Sorry, but I disagree with your opposition to the SkiLink plan. ... I do believe I understand the impact, environmental and financial implications of the project. I've  spent quite a bit of time in Europe, have skied and otherwise visited many interconnected ski resorts. For some reason in the U.S. this endeavor is fervently fought by special interest groups whose motivations I don't agree with. With SkiLink it will require selling a total of 30 acres for the project? Really? That's it? ... While I don't have a say due to the fact that I don't reside in UT, I am a tourist who brings tourist dollars to your state, and I do so ONLY to ski. It is a significant inconvenience to drive around to the various resorts I like to ski. ... In Europe, (riding a gondola between resorts) was a very enjoyable thing to do. It also reduced the need for vehicles which of course reduces emissions etc.

Stay tuned; the fight is just starting to ramp up, and the implications for the future of Utah's public lands are important.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's Managing Editor.

GPS waypoint map thanks to
Image of Deer Valley Resort at night courtesy Flickr user Tom Kelly.
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