Op-Ed: Who really wants the One Wasatch massive-resort?

“Who wants this expansion?” Salt Laker, physician and photographer Howie Garber wondered aloud. He was talking about Ski Utah’s March announcement of their intention to make lift connections that would enable a person to ski all seven Central Wasatch resorts in a single day. They’re calling it One Wasatch and claim the process will occur through a collaborative effort representing the federal, state, city, county, business and private sectors. It’s all part of Utah’s Mountain Accord process, a regional planning effort. And the map highlighting possible connection zones shows three that will stir conflict with backcountry users.

Howie’s been active in local preservation efforts for more than 30 years, so I stopped by his place not long after the announcement to get his read on the concept. Citing the 2010 Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow survey on future development in the canyons of the Central Wasatch, he continued: “Ninety-four percent of citizens support limiting resort expansions…. When do local populations get an opportunity to determine how much takes place in their backyard?” He was right, and I needed to find out more.

 

Personally I love both resort and backcountry skiing, but more development makes me cringe. Open space simply seems more valuable to me. But it’s not just up to me.

Sunrise from Clayton Peak. Wasatch Mountains, Utah. [Photo] Louis Arevalo

Sunrise from Clayton Peak. Wasatch Mountains, Utah. [Photo] Louis Arevalo

I got Ski Utah’s Nathan Rafferty on the phone to answer Howie’s first question: who wants this? Nathan pointed to Utah’s tourism industry. He said that, by creating this unique skier experience “unlike anything in North America,” he—along with the areas’ GMs—believes it will grow tourism dollars, which would benefit the state’s economy. I asked about backcountry users, and he acknowledged the value of both in- and out-of-bounds skiing experiences. He assured me that this concept would not make that go away: there are no plans for lodges, parking lots or other developments. “Chairlifts and ski runs only,” he said.

In an e-mail from Park City Councilman Andy Beerman, he declined to take a position on One Wasatch. He did concede that their resorts could be connected with minimal impact since they already share boundaries and suggested that linking the three Park City Resorts—Canyons, Deer Valley and Park City—would likely receive community support. Then, he noted that connecting to the Cottonwood Canyons would be more difficult because, he said, “they involve Federal lands, sensitive watershed areas, and potential recreational conflicts.”

To me, the connection from Alta to Solitude—the Grizzly Gulch to Twin Lakes Pass area—will raise the most objections. It’s popular among backcountry users but also one of my “go-to” places as a photographer. Converting it and other zones to inbounds terrain would not only cut away from the backcountry, it would impact my wallet.

Twin Lakes Pass. [Photo] Louis Arevalo

Twin Lakes Pass. [Photo] Louis Arevalo

Carl Fisher, director of Save Our Canyons, is also against the One Wasatch Concept. “We’ve received over a thousand comments since One Wasatch was announced,” Carl said. “Even out-of-state visitors say it will ruin why they come; which is easily accessed resorts and easily accessed backcountry.” He believes skier days in Utah are on the rise due to increased backcountry use, and thinks that the plans won’t even make it through the Mountain Accord process.

The Mountain Accord is Utah’s effort to develop a planning blueprint for the Central Wasatch that includes federal agencies, local governments, businesses and organizations with a huge public component. “When are you going to write an article about the Mountain Accord?” the Accord’s program director, Laynee Jones, asked. “We have the decision-makers at the table. It’s a real powerhouse and they’re here to find solutions and willing to compromise. The ski areas are just one part of the equation in the future of the Wasatch.”

She had a point. Through the Mountain Accord, Laynee sees an opportunity to do something remarkable that could preserve the Central Wasatch for generations. They are currently developing blueprints in the four systems groups—transportation, economics, recreation and environment—and each group has been tasked with coming up with an idealized scenario, which then will be brought to the board where a consensus must be met before it can be approved. She mentioned that One Wasatch could be part of one such proposed scenario, possibly coming from the economic group.

Next, I spoke with Peter Metcalf, CEO of Salt Lake-based Black Diamond Equipment. And while BD no doubt benefits from both resort and backcountry sales, Metcalf has always been a vocal proponent of preserving Utah’s open spaces. He believes we currently have a good balance between developed and undeveloped terrain, and sees the One Wasatch Concept as a marketing move. But he doesn’t buy it. “Who’s really going to ski all the resorts in one day?” he asked, “And is it even possible without sitting on lifts all day long and doing mediocre traverses?”

Knowing the resorts’ desires to expand will not go away, Peter has given some thought to an arrangement. Speculating that if these connections were worked through the Mountain Accord, Peter shared a possible scenario: “Approval of the interconnect as part of a much larger Wasatch agreement would include the following,” he said. “A route that was the least impactful to the existing Wasatch backcountry ski experience, minimal and defined prepared piste on the sides of the lifts, guaranteed access to backcountry skiers of the linked zones, full support of the expanded Matheson Wasatch Wilderness Bill, a giving up of all future development rights via conservation easements on all private lands surrounding the new lifts, and binding agreements between the ski areas and the Forest Service to never expand the ski areas beyond their current boundaries.”

This wasn’t the resounding objection on all fronts that I imagined Peter would give on ski area expansion in the canyons. But after letting the compromise concept steep, I began to understand how One Wasatch and any other development might be handled.

When I shared Peter’s scenario with Nathan, he agreed that, if One Wasatch were to become a reality, compromises would have to be made. “[Ski Utah] can’t have this conversation without putting something on the table,” Nathan said. And while he’s excited about One Wasatch he admits that it’s a complicated idea. There are, after all, seven areas with seven separate owners, he reminded me, and each link would have its own issues.

Eventually, I was back where I began, talking with Howie.“The bottom line, Louie, is that it’s about the preservation of powder skiing,” he said, “which I truly believe is a dwindling natural resource!” We both laughed, but Howie was serious. For him it’s preservation, for Ski Utah it’s about growing the economy. Is it possible to do both?

 

To find out more about One Wasatch and stakeholder counter arguments, visit onewasatch.com, mountainaccord.com, saveourcanyons.org and wasatchbackcountryalliance.org

Comments

  1. Steven Rekuc says:

    You failed to mention the Vail resort / Talisker lawsuit with Park City. If Vail Resorts has control of both Canyons and PCMR, then that connection is in the express lane. If that happens, the cottonwood resorts may need to join forces against the evil empire. I hope that the cottonwoods do connect alta to Solitude (or Brighton) with minimal impact (Gondy with no ski runs added) just to counter the vail resorts domination. But that also means the last connection between Canyons and Brighton / Solitude will be a long-fought battle.

  2. David R. Smith says:

    Steven makes a good point about the current dispute between PCMR and the Canyons (Vail). The other issue affecting the one mountain proposal that seems to br ignored is the question of snowboarder access (as two of the seven resorts currently do not allow snowboarders. It would seem that the seven potential “one mountain” resorts have a ways to go in working about their differences before any “one mountain” proposal would be viable.

    Dave Smith

  3. I currently live in the midwest, so I would assume that makes me a tourist to the salt lake, park city ski areas. I personally do not ski the back Country, some side country………with that said, if they were to connect all the resorts, or even some of them (note: yes I realize Alta and snowbird do have a connect) I would stop making the area one of my destinations. I really like the fact that I can pick and choose where to ski……..The different layouts, terrain, vibes, people…….my feelings, mood, and ambitions for that day, all play into it. Mix that all together and you loose what is unique to each place, not to mention the types of skiers that I personally like to stay away from.

  4. Jean Wheeler says:

    Let’s also consider the fact that the wasatch really can’t handle more people. Multiple days in the last two seasons both little and big cottonwood canyons were closed fairly early in the day to uphill ski traffic (auto) because there was no more parking. these resorts are precariously perched upon narrow canyons in fragile landscape. Any expansion, even lifts and clear cut trees for runs, would destroy utah’s best freely available marketing material thus far — the ease of access, the views and the powder.

    the valley is increasingly more polluted each winter with a smog that travels further and further up the canyon, there is no room for more people, more traffic, more littering and more pollution. the locals don’t want this and quite honestly i doubt the need is there either — I have never once ‘ran out’ of areas to ski at any single utah resort, except on days where there is no snow on the ground! ski utah wants a big fat marketing slogan. until they can respect the interests of the local stewards of the land (Us! who pick up litter, help maintain trails, and advocate for its protection, etc.) and figure out a long term sustainable solution for growth, traffic and infrastructure to handle it, there is no room here.

  5. Why would a snowboarder pay full price for a ticket where you can on only access 5/7ths of the terrain due to snowboard bans? How does having snowboard bans even help attract tourists if they cant even make the interconnect?

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