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Many a chairlift conversation in Utah this winter will revolve around SkiLink, the proposed—and suddenly controversial—eight-person gondola connecting The Canyons in Park City to Solitude in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Last week, The Canyons sent out a press release announcing the SkiLink name and a dedicated website . But there was more: Utah’s U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R) and Mike Lee (R), and U.S. Representatives Rob Bishop (R) and Jason Chaffetz (R) introduced legislation that would allow the sale of 30.3 acres in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. If approved, the legislation would make that parcel of federally managed land available to purchase by Talisker, the company that owns The Canyons, at a fair market price. The strip of land—currently under a federal management plan that prohibits the construction of ski lifts—runs over the Wasatch Crest along the proposed path of the SkiLink gondola. (Read the legislation here.)
The legislation drew an immediate response from local conservationists. “Why are they going the Congressional route?” asks Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons. “We can only guess it’s because what they want to do is inconsistent with not only the forest plan, but local plans and ordinances. … It’s beyond a dialogue at this point. It’s going to be an all out fight to stop this legislation.”
On the other hand, Mike Goar, managing director of The Canyons, says SkiLink would not have any negative impacts on water quality, wildlife, and plants. Goar, and the Utah politicians behind the legislation also predict that SkiLink will take cars off the road, create jobs, and bring in revenue by distinguishing Utah as a unique ski destination. “[The politicians] certainly see it as an economic driver to elevate our winter offering and the winter experience,” Goar says. “The environmental benefit of removing a number of cars from the highway was really a home run.” Any land made private by a sale would still be open to backcountry skiers, Goar added.
Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, Ltd, a Utah company that manufactures and sell skis and gear for both resort and backcountry use, doesn’t see the issue the same way. “The proposed SkiLink would be akin to introducing a strip mall to this area,” he says. “One-off interconnects would urbanize the backcountry, ruin the integrity of our watershed, mar the views, and do nothing to minimize traffic.” Metcalf is also a member of a ski and snowboard industry group in the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development that last week wrote a group letter protesting the sale. “There have been no less than three stakeholder processes in recent years related to the future development of the Wasatch, and all have concluded against further ski area expansion,” he says.
People on all sides are voicing their opinions: A website called wasatchinterconnect.com was created as a discussion forum, and a Facebook page called “Stop the Tram” sprung up after the project was first announced in October. —Olivia Dwyer