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Utah's SkiLink closes off public land


Some 80 groups and companies that want public land to remain open to the public have signed a petition to stop a Canadian developer from building a gondola to hook together two ski resorts near Salt Lake City.

Traversing about 30 acres of what is now Wasatch National Forest, the gondola would benefit the Talisker corporation, which plans to connect Canyons Ski Resort in Park City to Solitude Mountain Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Talisker’s proposal to privatize public land, called SkiLink, has the energetic backing of Republican members of Utah’s congressional delegation, and the bill authorizing the sale of public land has already been reported out of the House Committee on Public Resources.

It is true that the 30 acres of public land at stake aren’t a huge amount, but they are precious, bisecting popular hiking and cycling trails and containing a well-loved backcountry ski run. Talisker and ski industry representatives tout the increased tourism dollars and more jobs for Utah that would flow from the gondola, but the growing opposition also has a broad base, ranging from Patagonia, Mountain Hardware, Utah Rivers Council and Save Our Canyons to Salt Lake City and county commissioners, Salt Lake Public Utilities -- even the Forest Service itself.

Gregory Smith, acting deputy chief of staff of the U.S Department of Agriculture testified against the SkiLink bill in December 2011, stressing that construction could damage watersheds, scar preserved areas and set a risky precedent of encouraging new private inholdings within national forests. But informed opposition like that is exactly why Talisker and its lobbyists have involved federal-level legislation to aid their construction project. If passed, the gondola bill would block the Forest Service from any involvement in the regulatory process.

To understand the scheme of SkiLink, one must fully grasp the geography of the Salt Lake Valley. Salt Lake City snuggles up to the Wasatch Mountains, whose canyons host several major ski resorts. The canyons run largely east to west, spilling into the increasingly populated Salt Lake Valley. Travel between these canyons is difficult, because drivers must retrace their steps and return to the metro area before venturing up another canyon.

SkiLink is marketed as a transportation solution, likely because the Forest Service’s current policies prohibit any further ski resort expansion. The two resorts are approximately three miles apart as the crow flies, but driving between them takes 40 minutes. A gondola would, it’s claimed, reduce car trips between the two resorts. But to access the gondola from Canyons Resort, a skier would need to purchase a lift ticket at Canyons (a $96 investment in the winter of 2011/2012) and ride several lifts and ski several runs to reach the base of the gondola. This high admission cost makes it clear that this “transportation solution” is aimed at wealthy tourists, not commuting locals.

Although the Wasatch Mountains’ ski resorts certainly help fuel Salt Lake’s tourism economy, the mountains have a higher purpose than just downhill skiing. The population of the Salt Lake Valley -- expected to double in the next 30 years -- depends on the mountain range for much of its water. That is why the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities stated its doubt that the gondola could be constructed without harming the local watershed.  Most importantly, opponents worry that its construction would make it more difficult to limit future development in the canyon, setting a precedent that favors private development over public need.

The ski industry reports that support SkiLink are based on continuous growth in that industry, counting on a steady increase of skiers each year to substantiate claims that SkiLink will generate 500 jobs and churn $51 million into the Utah economy. This ignores the reality that skier numbers depend on snow quality, and skier visits from this past year, the barren 2011-2012 winter, dropped 10 percent from those of 2010-2011. The past season of 2011-2012 was the driest winter on record since 1976. Predictably, the number of skier-days logged at resorts dropped dramatically.

Climate change, as we all know by now, is going to make what used to be outlier years, normal years. Dry winters and drier summers might become the new normal. Now is the time to safeguard Western water sources and develop in a responsible manner; it's not time to allow public lands, on which key watersheds are housed, to be parceled off to whoever is doling out enough cash through Washington lobbyists.

So do we really need to sell off public land that is well used and well loved by locals to cater to tourists who visit once a year? Here’s how Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, answered that question, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune: ”What is being publicly sold as a solution to traffic is a private-interest land grab of some of the most pristine and heavily used recreational public land in the Wasatch for the benefit of a single real estate developer.”

Casey O’Malley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Salt Lake City and is a teacher, writer and skier.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].