Utah’s SkiLink Gondola Is Not Needed, Not Wanted

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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 run largely east to west, spilling into the increasingly populated Salt Lake Valley. Automobile 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 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 range for much of its water. That’s 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 provide support for SkiLink are based on continuous growth, 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 is going to make what used to be outlier years 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.”

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. In affiliation with High Country News. Canyons photo by Shutterstock.

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{ 6 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Jeff Arrington

    It’s a land grab and at the same time a SNOW grab. You saw it earlier in our season when, at the Canyons Resort you had to ride 2 lifts just to get to the snow. Those wealthy ski-snobs in Park City won’t bother to drive to our resorts in Big Cottonwood canyon, but give them a 100 dollar gondola ride and all of a sudden their looking for steak in their chili at my resort. Stay over there on your endless groomers and leave us the Hell Alone. But, your invited to drive over any time.
    Man, I had a hard time not puking profanities on this comment.

  • Nick Lumby

    I’ve had many discussions about this ‘SkiLink’ proposal, so far i’ve come up with people who don’t really have an opinion, to people who are vehemently against it, myself included, so far i have not met a single person who is for it. SkiLink is a thinly veiled attempt by a large real estate corporation to purchase public lands for private benefit. Once they have a monstrosity of a lift going over the range, what’s to stop them from adding an enormous house here, and another one there? Before we know it, that entire 30 acres will be turned into another exclusive housing development like The Colony, where admittance requires an 8 figure bank account, fencing off the land, and restricting it from the general public that used to own, and recreate there. I’m hoping that the legislators who are responsible for this request actually put their own interests behind those of the Public, and deny this ludicrous request!

  • Jeff Arrington

    Amen Nick Lumby!!! I need to apologize to the general Park City public for not thinking before I comment. I lumped all of them into the same category in my first post. I own a home in Summit Co. and have had season passes to PC Resort as well as the Canyons Resort. It’s a different experience just over the ridge from where I now ride and the tourists should make the not so long drive around the mountain and come experience what we have to offer at Brighton and Solitude.

  • LN

    It sounds to me like the 40 minute drive could turn into a 40 minute ride with the possibility of ‘layovers’ and waiting in line during times of high usage (if there were any times of high usage). Plus, for the $95 fee, you cant even stop to use the restroom or grab a bite to eat before you head to the other ski areas like you can when you come to town. This plan not only sounds like it would further impede on the beauty of our mountains and make money (maybe) for a foreign country, but it’s impractical and unneeded. I urge all legislators and others involved to deny this attempt to fleece the skiers.

  • MoDMaN60

    I used to work at the Canyons back when it was Wolf Mountain. When Ski Corp bought it and turned it into the Canyons they were not interested in the ski tourists or their happiness. Their entire business model was developing and selling real estate, comprised of the small farms and ranches that were adjacent to the old resort. Now having exhausted those parcels the developers WILL be looking at back country lots as a way to create future “growth.”

    Solitude and Brighton are awesome, lovely places and the back country is a natural habitat that really shouldn’t be messed with.

    BTW – you think the $90 lift access is all it will cost to ride the Ski-Link??? Mwahahahahaahaaaaa, that’s rich.

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