Friday, March 01, 2013

First Ski Link meeting

Last night I went to the first public forum to learn all about Ski Link.  Who would have ever thought that a single ski gondola could be such a source of controversy?  This may go on for years!

A little bit of background:

  • Canyons and Solitude ski resorts have proposed building a two-way gondola (meaning humans use it for both up and down) that would connect the two resorts.  To do this, it would have one terminal near the top of the mountain at Canyons, drop through Big Cottonwood canyon, and the second terminal would be at the base of Solitude.  
  • To accomplish this, the gondola would have to go across Forest Service land.  Lots of the ski resorts are completely or at least partially on leased forest service property.
  • Apparently Canyons thought it was very unlikely to get approval from the forest service, so it skipped that step and instead went to their Utah senators and house members to propose a federal bill that would sell 30 acres of federal land to Canyons. The bill was never voted on and with our new congress, needs to be resubmitted for anything to happen.
  • Meanwhile, this backdoor, forced-entry approach infuriated a good chunk of the local ski population.  Even those who thought the gondola might be a good idea thought that this was sure a crappy way of going about it.

Last night, the Episcopal Church hosted a gathering to allow the different involved parties to come speak to the public.  Perhaps because it was in a church and no one wanted God to smite those in the room, even the most emotional of attendees were well behaved and polite.

As best I can tell, the majority of the roughly 300 attendees were against Ski Link.  This kind of makes sense.  In general, I think people are a lot more likely to show up to try and stop something "bad" than to show up to say "It's OK.  Let it happen".

The four speakers included representatives from Canyons, Solitude, the Save Our Canyons nonprofit, and the Salt Lake City water district.  Here are some of the things I heard during the evening and my take on them:
  • Canyons should have gone through the normal, complete process for ski areas wanting to use forest service land.  Yep, I think they tried a big time shortcut and it is coming back to bite them.  Just the same, if it would work anywhere, it will work in ultra-conservative, business friendly Utah.
  • Thinking that people will ski from Canyons to get to Solitude in order to save the 45 minute drive is crazy.  Yes again.  To get from the base of Canyons to Solitude requires something like 4 lifts and a gondola. Some of the transportation savings being suggested are absurd.
  • Not only will they cut the trees for the gondola, they will cut up the area with lots of roads to provide service.  Nope.  And I will say Nope again because people kept bringing this up. Just look at the ski lifts around you.  They run roads to both ends of the lift, and those are already there for the location Ski Link would go in.  They don't add roads for either construction or maintenance for the mid towers.  All construction is done by helicopter.
  • In addition to using the 30 acres for the gondola, they are going to use it for building condos or hotels.   Wrong again.  They even offered to give back any of the 30 acres that weren't needed once the explicit path was determined for the gondola.
  • Cutting this 30 acre slice out would ruin the forest service land for animals and recreation.  I'm not a wildlife expert, but I have to wonder if these people have ever been to any of the surrounding ski areas.  I see moose, deer, elk, ermine, porcupine, and more.  In the summers, many of the hikers and mountain bikers in Park City are actually on resort land owned by Deer Valley, PCMR, or Canyons.  It is hard for me to imagine why another dozen lift towers will suddenly ruin it for everyone.
  • The gondola will ruin the water supply for Salt Lake county.  The Wasatch Mountains are a huge portion of Salt Lake's water supply.  Just the same, there are already hundreds of thousands of cars driving up the canyons and four full-sized ski areas in business.  The gondola will not make a noticeable difference.
  • The gondola will actually make the ski resorts more appealing, which will draw more skiers, which will have an impact on Salt Lake's water supply.  Now we are finally getting to the real issues, although they seem to come up so infrequently.  The reason Canyons and Solitude are willing to fight this fight and spend millions on a gondola is that it will be worth it.  This will provide a unique draw for these resorts and will attract more visitors.  I heard an estimate of 75,000-400,000 skier days per year increase.  I think those numbers are high, but now you can actually start to see some watershed impact.
Steve's vote?  I would actually like to see a complete plan to connect all 7 Wasatch ski resorts.  It could be done fairly easily if the resorts weren't such fierce competitors.  Having skied the vast, interconnected areas in France, I really appreciate the distinct value this could bring to Utah.  No other area in the US could come close.  For giggles, here is the Three Valleys area around Meribel, where they truly know how to build a ski experience. Double-click on it to see all the ski lifts.

Just the same, I hate to see companies use backdoor politics to buy off some house or senate member and get them to do something very special for that microscopic portion of their constituency. I would love to see Ski Link be the driving force behind a more thought out, comprehensive solution to interconnected ski areas.  I would like to see the forest service, SLC water, the resorts and the recreating public all be a part of creating that solution.

If you want more information about Ski Link, here are the main forces:
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