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A Canyons-Solitude SkiLink Plea

On November 17, 2011, in Environmental Ethics, Nature, Tourism, by Meghan
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The bottom line:

1. Four Republican Utah legislators have proposed to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act. If it passes, it will legalize the sale of 30 linear acres of Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest between Canyons and Solitude Mountain Resort in the Wasatch Mountains to private developers who intend build aerial transport between the resorts on that land.

2. If we’re going to link resorts, I think the Wasatch Mountains culture can do way better than this.

3. If you also think we can do better, tell your congressmen/women and senators now.

The whole story:

From afar, the Wasatch Mountains appear as dinosaur vertebrae, a crinkly spine running north-south through 150 miles of Utah. Though folks from Colorado or California might otherwise opine, this ragged range of rock, says the state’s ski resort marketing firm, Ski Utah, collects some of The Greatest Snow on Earth. That glittery fluff attracts gaggles of winter tourists to the range’s 11 downhill ski and snowboard resorts and, frankly, makes an economic life and recreation culture for those of us who call the Wasatch home-sweet-pow-home.

Most of the Wasatch’s resorts are concentrated in a small geographic area east of Salt Lake City, inside of Big Cottonwood Canyon, Little Cottonwood Canyon, and over the Wasatch Crest (This is local speak for the dinosaur spine that marks the range’s highest line.) in the small town of Park City. Though conversations have brainstormed far and wide, Utahans have long talked about linking the east and west side of the Wasatch Mountains. The Guardsman Pass Road, a mostly paved road between Big Cottonwood Canyon and Park City, does this during summer, but shuts down under winter’s snow volume.

This is a view looking down onto the high point of the Guardsman Pass Road in fall (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

The Guardsman Pass Road closes above Park City in the winter (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

At present, if you want to ski a Big Cottonwood Canyon resort one day and another in Park City the next, you’ve got to put the pedal to your own private-transportation metal via an hour-ish drive on roads. Those with backcountry experience and avy savvy can journey by foot across a couple thousand acres of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, the public lands that pretty much surround everything privately-owned in the high Wasatch.

Currently, the Talisker Corporation, the Canada-based real estate developers who own Canyons ski resort in Park City, are talking loud and a lot about connecting themselves with Solitude Mountain Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon via a gondola. This chatter began with a September press release and has, as of this week, evolved into a thick promotional campaign for the “SkiLink” that resembles a blinding January blizzard.

SkiLink website materials indicate that the Talisker Corporation is proposing an eight-person gondola to leave Canyons somewhere between the Dreamscape and Day Break lifts (See Canyon’s trail map here.), cross a wide, undeveloped piece of Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on the north side of Big Cottonwood Canyon (This area is currently prized backcountry ski terrain in the winter and primo hiking grounds by summer.), and enter Solitude Mountain Resort somewhere near its base. At this point, it seems that both Canyons and Solitude Mountain Resort are fully-committed to the operation.

However, standing between the two resorts is that national forest acreage. We all know that federal lands are just that, administered by the federal government for various forms of public use. The Talisker Corporation could achieve approval on the use of national forest land a couple of ways. More traditionally, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest could lease the land to the Talisker Corporation. Many ski resorts around the United States are located on leased national forest land.

If the federal government is going to do anything significant to federal land (Leasing land to a ski resort is an example of doing something significant.), they are mandated to follow protocol established by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (NEPA is explained pretty darn well and without a lot of technical jargon here.). NEPA’s been around for a long time and, to put it succinctly, it’s a checks and balances type act that requires the federal government to put a lot of heads together before making decisions that could significantly impact public land. In addition to all kinds of field experts–hydrologists, engineers, botanists, and more–being a part of the NEPA process, the public also gets to weigh in. After all, public lands are just that. This whole deal takes some time, as most significant things should, typically a couple of years.

In SkiLink’s case, there’s one way that everyone involved can escape the NEPA process: a land sale. If the federal government sells the acreage in question to the Talisker Corporation, the land is no longer federal and subject to NEPA process. With that land, the Talisker Corporation can do almost whatever it pleases.

A land sale is exactly what is now being proposed. On November 17th, Congressman Rob Bishop (Republican-Utah), Senator Orrin Hatch (Republican-Utah), Senator Mike Lee (Republican-Utah), and Congressman Jason Chaffetz (Republican-Utah) brought the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act into the United States House of Representatives and Senate (Read the full bill, H.R. 3452, S. 1883, here.).

If the bill passes, it will legalize the sale of those 30 acres in question to Canyons-SkiLink, LLC (This is the Talisker Corporation.) “to permit the establishment of a minimally invasive transportation alternative for skiiers… and for other purposes.”

And, like lightning, the deal could be done and the very nature of our mountains could change without any consideration of alternatives. Wait, wait, wait, STOP.

This is my plea: Let’s think through what we, as a mountain culture, want and need before we let developers from Ontario and Washington, D. C. politicians decide for us.

I’m not a hippie environmentalist hollering about The Man for the sake of making noise. We may very well want and need a link over the Wasatch Crest. But the SkiLink is set to become a gimmicky, pricey, of-little-use-to-locals gondola designed for a certain group of tourists that will cut new development across a beautiful, untouched chunk of national forest. We can do better than this.

What about an all-year, public, affordable train traveling parallel to the already-impacted Guardsman Pass Road?

Or an all-year, public, affordable tram that connects downtown Park City with the heart of Big Cottonwood Canyon and travels over only ski resort property and the Guardsman Pass Road, areas that are already-impacted?

Or what about developing Salt Lake City’s light rail and bus system even more robustly so that it includes public transport to all ski resorts in the Wasatch Mountains (Park City already has a sweet public transport hook-up.)?

Or, or, or? Possibilities are aplenty if we give ourselves the time to brainstorm, talk, plan, and implement.

Do your part to tell your state’s representatives that you oppose the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act, H.R. 3452, S. 1883.

Here's a fall view from the Wasatch Crest in the approximate area through which the proposed gondola would travel (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Here is the directory for all the members of the United States House of Representatives, and here is the directory for all the United States Senate members. Look up your state’s representative and contact them. Call, email, snail mail, send a Facebook message, or write them on Twitter. Whatever you do, say that the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act, H.R. 3452, S. 1883, is not right for the Wasatch Mountains.

If you’re a Utahan, here’s contact information for the four fellas’ who created the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act, H.R. 3452, S. 1883.

Congressman Rob Bishop
Snail Mail: 123 Cannon Building, Washington, DC 20515
Telephone: 202-225-0453
Fax: 202-225-5857
Email: here

Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Snail Mail: 1032 Longworth HOB, Washington, DC 20515
Telephone: 202-225-7751
Fax: 202-225-5629
Email: here

Senator Orrin Hatch
Snail Mail: 104 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510
Telephone: 202-224-5251
Fax: 202-224-6331
Email: here

Senator Mike Lee
Snail Mail: 316 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510
Telephone: 202-224-5444
Fax: 202-228-1168
Email: here

Also, Utah has one more congressman who doesn’t appear to be supporting the bill. Here’s who he is and how to tell him what you think:

Congressman Jim Matheson
Snail mail: 2434 Rayburn HOB, Washington, DC 20515
Telephone: 202-225-3011
Fax: 202-225-5638
Email: here

UPDATE (December 12, 2011):

Thanks to everyone who has commented on this blog post or sent me a thoughtful email in response.

Thanks also to those of you who’ve taken time to write your respective senators and congressmen in opposition of the land-sale legislation.

Please take a moment to visit Save Our Canyons. They are the Salt Lake City-based non-profit organization who is monitoring news about the legislation and SkiLink and, more importantly, speaking out against both of them. Also, feel free to roll by StopSkiLink.com for some more resources.

Finally, Utah resident Jim Skaggs wrote an email of opposition to Congressman Rob Bishop about the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act. Here’s a scanned image of Rob Bishop’s response:

Letter from Congressman Rob Bishop to Jim Skaggs (image courtesy of Jim Skaggs).

Rob Bishop’s response cites studies conducted by consultants to the Talisker Corporation as reasons he’s in favor of the bill and the SkiLink. These studies are, without question, biased toward Talisker’s motives and desires (No other studies by independent entities on impacts/influences/results of the legislation or the SkiLink yet exist. This kind of work will take months or years and the legislation was only introduced a couple weeks ago.). That Rob Bishop cites the studies as fact and uses them as his framework for supporting the bill and SkiLink makes me question his ethics. Why does he seem so closely tied to Talisker motives?

I’m disturbed, too, that Rob Bishop writes about Utah’s wild space as collateral for tourism, jobs, and money. Wild space has inherent value on its own and he doesn’t seem to see it.

Finally, a good legislator listens to the public that he or she represents and engages in discourse about issues important to his or her represented area and people. Congressman Rob Bishop’s letter makes no indication that he acknowledges or is willing to engage with Jim Skaggs’ opinion.

Again, my plea is about doing better than selling federal wildlands for a tourist gimmick. If Utah needs inter-resort and/or cross-Wasatch Crest transportation solutions, let us create something that’s environmentally responsible and useful to both locals and tourists.

UPDATE (December 27, 2011):

Utah resident Jim Skaggs wrote an email of opposition to Senator Orrin G. Hatch about the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act. Orrin Hatch responded via email:

Letter from Senator Orrin G. Hatch to Jim Skaggs (image courtesy of Jim Skaggs).

I’m, at this point, not surprised that Orrin Hatch’s position in favor of the bill and SkiLink is, like Rob Bishop, also based on Talisker’s biased studies about the SkiLink’s positive economic impacts. I’m also not surprised that Orrin Hatch says nothing about the inherent value of wild spaces.

One of the most important things I learned about Orrin Hatch from this letter is that he supports the bill and SkiLink because he values keeping Utah’s land in the hands of locals. Everyone, including Orrin Hatch no doubt, knows that Talisker is a Canadian business. Selling federal lands will, thus, place them in the hands of folks not even in this country.

My conclusion, based upon this letter, is that Orrin Hatch’s position on the bill and SkiLink is not founded in reality.

11 Responses to “A Canyons-Solitude SkiLink Plea”

  1. Danni says:

    Good luck Meghan. A train would be way cooler.

  2. Jake says:

    Well done Meghan–thank you!

  3. Matt says:

    The train up Guardsman or a connection to downtown Park City makes much more sense to me than SkiLink. Great ideas! Then if there is a connection to Little Cottonwood I would think Grizzly Gulch would be a solution. I believe that is privately owned?? Eventually I think something has to be done. The traffic is an issue. Just hope as you said what happens is well thought out with the big picture in mind.

  4. Stan Pitcher says:

    Thanks Meghan – my sentiments exactly!

  5. Meghan says:

    I just wanted to say thanks to each of you for your support of the cause! Our community needs more of us.

  6. Tyler says:

    Megan, thanks for the good word! I agree with making guardsman the access point before a tram. I truly hope Grizzly remains public access and isn’t the long term solution. We are known for having terrane that is so amazing and so close. No other big city has that. What more do we need? The transportation issue can be solved in other ways.

  7. Jeanni says:

    Nicely done write-up, I am a little behind on my investigation of such, so I was going to ask you a question. Is there no protection of federal lands designated as National Forest against the sale of such land?

    • Meghan says:

      Jeanni,

      Thanks for stopping by and you ask a very good question.

      Believe it or not, there is no law that bars US legislators from introducing a bill to sell federal land (or any other off-the-wall and/or insane idea that a particular congressperson or senator has). If you’re an elected federal legislator like any of these men listed above, this is in the realm of your power.

      Fortunately, a complex checks-and-balances procedure exists at the federal legislative level for any introduced bill. This link, http://www.usconstitution.net/consttop_law.html, provides a jargon-free description of how federal bills are/are not made into law.

      At this point, the future of the 30.3 federal acres in the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act are in the hands of the US Senate, the US House of Representatives, and, perhaps eventually, the US President. Right now, the bill is at the committee-hearing level. If I correctly recall, the House Committee on Natural Resources (in the US House of Representatives) conducted a hearing on the bill on December 2nd. No votes on the bill have yet been made at either the committee or entire house/senate level.

      It is, of course, the hope of all of us who think the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act or the resulting SkiLink are a bad idea that that the bill will be tossed out through that checks-and-balances process by other US legislators at some point before it becomes a law.

      Thanks again for stopping by and getting educated.

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