Wrangling over the future of Salt Lake skiing.
by Jeff Burke
Utah’s Central Wasatch Range is famously home to “the greatest snow on earth.” It’s a good catchphrase, in part because it’s not much of a stretch. On typical snow years, storms rolling off the high desert bump into the 10,000-foot peaks, sparking the meteorological marvel known as orographic lift. As the warm, wet air lifts, it cools. Cold air can’t hold as much moisture, and what follows is a fluffy, 500-plus-inch snowfall tally. Within a 45-minute drive from downtown Salt Lake City, skiers can access six major resorts, along with some of the most popular backcountry skiing terrain in the U.S.
More so than any mountain chain in the hemisphere, the Wasatch is a mountain park, its foothills butting into neighborhoods and its jumble of peaks crawling with recreationalists. There’s nothing like it outside of the Alps—where resorts connect town-to-town and country-to-country.
Look at a 3D map of the Wasatch, and you too might wonder why all the resorts aren’t linked (Alta and Snowbird were connected in 2001, and Canyons and Park City merged just this fall). And you wouldn’t be the first. Talk about interconnecting has circulated for nearly 50 years. More recently you might recall a now jettisoned plan to connect Park City with Solitude via a three-mile-long gondola dubbed SkiLink.
Now, two years after SkiLink fizzled, the interconnect idea is again gaining momentum. Ski Utah, the promotional agency behind ski tourism in the state, is at the helm with its latest concept, One Wasatch. At present it’s primarily a conceptual sketch depicting where a few lifts could go, but the goal is to connect all six resorts and three canyons with four chairlifts (or trains, or gondolas). Once completed, it would be possible to ski between Alta, Snowbird, Brighton, Solitude, Park City, and Deer Valley without hiking. To lift served skiers, it would mean access to 18,000 skiable acres via one pass that’s honored at all resorts. The merger would create the biggest skiing destination in North America.
One Wasatch sounds idyllic: breakfast in Park City, lunch in Alta, afternoon laps in Solitude, a massive network of terrain to explore. “The goal is simple,” says Ski Utah’s Nathan Rafferty, “more time on snow, less time in cars and on the road.”
To Utah’s conservation and backcountry skiing communities, however, One Wasatch is a nightmare scenario complete with confusing land swaps, encroachment on public lands, mismanagement of state marketing dollars, and a mounting conflict between resort and backcountry skiers and their respective industries. The opponents are organized and outspoken. And they especially object to the idea that more chairlifts will keep skiers out of vehicles, arguing that only public transportation can do that: “As far as One Wasatch getting people out of their cars…that’s bullshit,” says Carl Fisher of Save Our Canyons. And longtime backcountry skiing advocate Andrew McLean calls the plan a “marketer’s wet dream.”
Dreams and public transportation aside, the core issue is one of public lands. Backcountry skiers and conservationists don’t want to give up what remains of the free, accessible, natural zones of the Wasatch. For its part, Ski Utah insists One Wasatch can be realized without public lands. “We could do the whole thing tomorrow on private land,” says Rafferty. But the Fishers and McLeans of Utah aren’t buying it. “The problem is that the private land routes aren’t logical lines,” says McLean, after looking at the One Wasatch sketches. “There is no way to make these connections without using public land.”
By the numbers, there are approximately 60,000 skiable acres in the Wasatch. According to Ski Utah, less than 10 percent of that land is leased to commercial skiing by the Forest Service. One Wasatch, Rafferty points out, only wants to build on 600 privately held acres. That’s one percent of the 60,000 acres, a relatively minute amount of land.
The sticking point? Some of that same private land is currently on the swapping block in connection with the Mountain Accord Blueprint—an unrelated effort to fix Utah’s mountain transportation problem. Until those swaps play out—or not—we can’t verify either claim. Because it’s a Mountain Accord signee, One Wasatch is on hold until further notice.
For Ski Utah, One Wasatch is an essential step in increasing the state’s ski tourism revenue, as well as creating a sustainable ski product for the next 50 years. According to Rafferty, Utah boasts about four million skier visits annually compared to Colorado’s 12 million. “Twelve million is unrealistic,” he says. “But we can do more than four million and still keep a quality experience.”
Instead of building lifts, says Mark White, a field observer for the Utah Avalanche Center, “Let’s start building reasonably priced transit up the Canyons. There’s only so much room for so many people.”
Jeff Burke is a ski patroller at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and a longtime Utah skier—both inbounds and out.
From the Early Winter 2015 issue.