Two visions collide in Utah’s Wasatch Range

As ski resorts push for a mega-connection, backcountry skiers try to save some wild.


On a winter day in Utah’s Wasatch Range in the early 1970s, University of Utah professor Gale Dick and a small group of skiers stood near the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, contemplating a pristine slope of powder. A man appeared at the bottom of the run and urgently waved them away. Thinking they were being warned of avalanche danger, they took an alternate, much bumpier way down. At the bottom, they again encountered the man — a famous French skier named Jean-Claude Killy. There was, in fact, no avalanche danger at all. Much to the group’s annoyance, Killy had been cast in a promotional ad for Snowbird Ski Resort and needed a pristine slope for the day’s photo shoot. 

Dick went on to found Save Our Canyons, an organization that’s fought for more than four decades to keep development out of the Wasatch Range. The wild land of the Wasatch, which abuts Salt Lake City and its exurbs, has become a ski mecca, with six resorts scattered amid thousands of backcountry-skiing acres. Most of the resorts are separated by just a single ridge, a proximity that has fueled the ski executives’ dream: Connect them all, so that skiers can hop chairlifts from one to the next, thereby stimulating an already lucrative industry that brought more than 4 million visitors and 18,000 jobs to the state last year.

A growing community of backcountry skiers, though, object to that plan. They see themselves as more akin to Gale Dick than to Jean-Claude Killy, and, increasingly, they feel squeezed out of public land by the big resorts. Earlier this year, Vail Resorts Inc., a Colorado-based industry giant, purchased and consolidated two Wasatch Range ski areas. In mid-November, Park City opened for its first season as the country’s largest ski area, charging more than $100 for a daily pass. Vail’s move has created fresh impetus for further consolidation and connection of resorts, and set the stage for a new battle. 

The conflict between backcountry users and resort operators highlights two very different visions for the mountains: One that eagerly welcomes the rapidly growing population in the nearby urban areas, and another that wants to hold the growing mass of humanity at bay. The population of Salt Lake and Summit counties will more than double by 2050, according to the nonprofit Utah Foundation, and the tussle over competing uses of a finite resource is only growing as demand increases. “Everyone wants more — more terrain and more solitude within those spaces for backcountry skiing and more acreage for resort skiing,” says Chase Lamborn, a research associate with the Institute for Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University. “But the reality is, you’re talking about this confined space, and all of the areas are already being heavily utilized.”


John Lemnotis drops into the Benson and Hedges Couloir in Big Cottonwood Canyon, a popular place to backcountry ski.
James Roh

Central Wasatch skiing has a lengthy history, beginning with the Brighton Ski Resort (1936), followed by Alta Ski Area (1938), Solitude Mountain Resort (1957), Park City Mountain Resort (1963), Canyons Resort (1968), Snowbird Ski Resort (1971), and Deer Valley Resort Company (1981). All are crowded into 64,000 acres within the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

In 2012, a Canadian developer first proposed a project called SkiLink, which would have required the sale of 30 acres of national forest to connect two Wasatch resorts with a high-speed gondola. Ski Utah, the marketing arm of the state’s ski industry, has long sought to boost tourism through a Wasatch connectivity project, but backcountry users feared the influx of infrastructure and lift riders into formerly remote terrain. The newly formed Wasatch Backcountry Alliance rallied hundreds of backcountry skiers and snowboarders and, with the help of the older group Save Our Canyons, defeated SkiLink. Because the proposal relied on resort connections via public lands, it was easy to rally support against it, says Jamie Kent, Wasatch Backcountry Alliance’s president. “Everyone loves the canyons.”

In 2014, on the heels of the SkiLink failure, Ski Utah proposed “ONE Wasatch,” which would connect all of the area resorts, providing access to 18,000 acres of in-bounds terrain. The linkages would be made over private lands owned or controlled by the resorts, instead of through public lands, and both costs and profits would be shared by those resorts. “The ski industry has learned from their past mistakes and have come back with another, more powerful proposal,” Kent says. “They have packaged ONE Wasatch very well.” Vail has just completed the first of the three required connections by adding a gondola between Park City and Canyons resort, so only two more remain.

The backcountry community supports small-scale infrastructure, such as trail signage, restrooms in popular areas and a transportation system that would limit traffic. But most members vehemently oppose a resort-connectivity project like ONE Wasatch. Earlier this year, Lamborn helped survey more than 4,000 recreationists in the Wasatch. While about half of resort skiers supported a mega-ski resort connection, a mere 1 percent of backcountry users did so.

Backcountry aficionados fear that the ONE Wasatch proposal would clog up both vistas and slopes, taking away some beloved backcountry access points. They see it as an assault on their lifestyle, one that will also degrade a natural resource, further commercializing the mountains with each new development, expansion and marketing ploy. “How can you enjoy skiing when everything has been developed?” Kent says. “That takes away the whole point.” Critics also contend that the new lifts and their service and access roads would fragment wildlife habitat and impact popular mountain-biking trails.

Proponents, however, say ONE Wasatch would make Utah an international destination, modeled after the sprawling resorts of the Alps. The European-style gondola and lift connections would also help free narrow mountain roads from car and bus traffic. David DuBois, an airline pilot who lives in Park City and frequently skis at Alta, Solitude and Snowbird, says, “It’s a no-brainer for me. I’d much rather ski than be in a car.” Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, believes ONE Wasatch would provide an “unrivaled” product to skiers. “There’s nowhere in North America that could tie so much acreage together.”

Construction on the new Quicksilver gondola, a connection between Park City and Canyons resorts in the ONE Wasatch plan, which makes Park City the biggest resort in the United States.
Courtesy Vail Resorts

For the moment, ONE Wasatch is stalled amid a tangle of interlocking interests. And it’s further complicated by an even broader initiative called the Mountain Accord, which has pulled together dozens of stakeholders to prepare for a growing number of recreationists in the Wasatch while also protecting the area’s environment and watershed, which supplies drinking water to half a million Salt Lake City residents. The accord began with meetings between Salt Lake City and county leaders, area ski resorts and Save Our Canyons, who hired a neutral leader, Laynee Jones, as the project director.

The Mountain Accord, like ONE Wasatch, yearns to improve traffic flow through the canyons — but it wants to do a lot more than link up ski areas. During ski season, more than 8,000 cars per day travel Little Cottonwood Canyon alone, according to a 2012 Salt Lake County transportation study. Mountain Accord’s proponents want to dramatically decrease that by using a train, light-rail system or buses to connect the Salt Lake Valley and the town of Park City with popular recreation sites in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.

In July, after two years of negotiations and public comment, local, state and federal governments, Utah’s ski industry, recreational advocacy groups and environmental groups signed on to the first phase of the Mountain Accord. That step signifies a “good faith agreement” on broad goals for the mountains, but is not legally binding, Jones says. In phase two, environmental impact statements and studies will be completed for the initial agreements — transportation solutions, a federal land designation to provide stronger conservation protections, an environmental monitoring program, and land swaps to put key parcels in public hands. The accord does not derail ONE Wasatch, but it’s not yet clear how the ski connection proposal might be affected by it.

Backcountry advocates like Kent see the accord as a way to leverage more protection for the Central Wasatch, to hold back development and preserve backcountry access. Perhaps the crux of the conflict with the resort ski industry lies in Grizzly Gulch, a small slice of land owned by Alta that backcountry skiers have fought the hardest to protect. The resort has traditionally allowed backcountry skiers to use this gentle, popular terrain. But it’s also the best place to site a new ski lift for a key connection under the ONE Wasatch plan that would merge Alta’s terrain with Snowbird’s. Onno Wieringa, manager of Alta Ski Resort, says that if the Mountain Accord can’t come up with a solution to move skiers from one canyon to the next more easily, he will install a lift through Grizzly Gulch.

Kent and off-piste enthusiasts know this time is pivotal for the future of backcountry skiing in the Wasatch. The outcome will hinge on community comment during the next phase, which, Jones says, will be announced to the public in the coming months. “Participation at this point is crucial,” she says. “It could go either way.”