Salt Lake Tribune

Op-ed: ‘One Wasatch’ would show that Europe got it right – by J.F. Lanvers

Op-ed: ‘One Wasatch’ would show that Europe got it right 

By J.F. Lanvers – Published: October 19, 2014

JF LanversAlmost 30 years ago, when I decided to make Utah my home, I was struck by certain similarities between the Wasatch mountains and “Portes du Soleil,” a major ski interconnect weaved around Morzine, the French ski town where I grew up in the Alps. Even though it boasts more than 200 ski lifts, like Courchevel and the Three Valleys, this huge area was never planned to be interconnected.

It just developed on an idea from Jean Vuarnet, the hometown Olympic Champion, who back in the ’60s thought it would be neat to link neighboring ski resorts on either sides of the French and Swiss border.

Just like here in Utah, many residents became concerned when the idea began circulating. Fears like scarring the region’s natural beauty, homogenizing the communities, overrunning the mountains and benefiting some resorts at the expense of others, developed like we hear them around us today. As always, change brings reticence and this wasn’t any different in the Alps. For a while, Vuarnet’s ideas were demonized and it looked like his dream would never turn into reality.

Swiss and French, all of these resorts were drastically different and the singularity of each one, whether it would be their character, their architecture, their ambience, their respective lay of the land and their ski runs, contributed to create a collection of picturesque spots that culminated into an experiential value greater than the sum of its parts. That rich experience wasn’t just for the visitors to enjoy, but also, and not least, for the locals to discover.

In fact, their appreciation soon became a healthy addiction. With a day ticket or a season pass that offered access to the whole interconnect, locals discovered new vistas, unsuspected spots that could never be envisioned from the blind side of a valley, different folks, various hospitality styles, all the way to different culinary twists they could sample at lunchtime. Just like in the Utah’s Wasatch, deep valleys created formidable barriers that isolated communities and did not permit an expansive experience and all the wealth of sharing that come with it.

Soon, folks who were content to go up and down the same hill, discovered a whole new world of recreation, and once it became revealed to them, there was no way they could simply go back to that single hill and feel whole again. Sure tourists could do the same, and while they did venture a few times into the full expanse of terrain during their week stay, it’s the locals, in the end, that benefited the most because they had the entire season to sample and enjoy their limitless playground.

The attractiveness of the concept brought more jobs and increased business opportunities to the permanent population. It also created a true synergy in terms of economic benefits, infrastructure and improvement the entire community could tap into and be proud of. In fact it was more the enhancement of the quality of the ski experience than the number of visitations that became the ultimate benefit of linked resorts. Today, after 40 years of interconnected ski life, the economy of my former hometown remains incredibly strong while the rest of Europe struggles.

Living in Summit County, I’d love to ski Snowbird or Solitude more often, but the winter drive makes it unpractical, and I am sure the reverse is true for Alta or Brighton’s local patrons. So today, when my European friends visit me, their first question is why these three valleys that converge in one perfect spot are still not linked. I shake my head, smile and say: “Look, the country that put man on the moon and that gave GPS and Internet technology to the whole world is still figuring that one out!”

The good news is that the recent plans to link Park City and Canyons will crack open the door of enlightenment and soon give Utahns a glimpse into the connected future of two large ski areas. Many will finally ski in a place they just heard about and this initial opening between these two resorts will shine such a bright light that skiers and riders will want to see it spread farther, and sooner rather than later.

Born and raised in the French Alps, J.F. Lanvers has lived in Park City for 24 years and is an avid outdoor enthusiast.

Real Vail

Real Vail: Vail’s Park City/Canyons deal ushers in Era of the Interconnect

Vail’s Park City/Canyons deal ushers in Era of the Interconnect

By    -  September 11, 2014, 12:23 pm

Today’s announcement of Vail Resorts’ $182.5 million deal to buy Powdr Corp’s Park City Mountain Resort and connect to its neighboring Canyons Resort gives a huge boost to Utah’s One Wasatch plan to connect seven ski areas accessed by one lift ticket.

Besides being the first link in the network, the Park City/Canyons connection alone will create a 7,000-acre-plus ski complex that will immediately rank as the largest in the United States once the lifts are in place by the 2015-16 ski season (pending government approvals).

But One Wasatch – a concept announced last spring by trade association Ski Utah and endorsed by all seven resorts – would create an 18,000-acre, 100-lift interconnected complex that would rank among the great ski networks in the world.

With six relatively simple lift connections, One Wasatch would link Park City/Canyons (more than 7,000 acres) and Deer Valley (2,026) in the Park City area to Brighton (1,050) and Solitude (1,200) in Big Cottonwood Canyon and Alta (2,200) and Snowbird (2,500) in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Six of those seven resorts (excluding Canyons) are already part of the Ski Utah Interconnect, a guided $325 backcountry experience that can be done with standard alpine equipment. One Wasatch would add Canyons and connect all seven with lift access. No hiking necessary.

In fact, the seven ski areas mentioned are so close there’s very little hiking required now, as I discovered when I skied the Interconnect in 2006. Touring between ski resorts and ski towns is a uniquely European ski experience, and to some degree will stay that way even if One Wasatch comes to fruition, because Utah’s only real ski town on par with Breckenridge, Telluride, Aspen, Steamboat and Vail is Park City. Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons just contain ski areas.

Still, Utah will suddenly have a lot more to offer than “just” some of the best powder skiing on the planet. Besides serving up consistently deep snow a mere 35 to 40 minutes from Salt Lake City International Airport, the state will have a truly European-style interconnected alpine skiing experience that could make it a threat to Colorado’s skier-day dominance in the United States.

Since hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics, Utah has seen its skier days climb from 3 million to 4 million a season, but that still pales in comparison to Colorado’s 12 million skier days a season – by far the most in the nation. The One Wasatch concept is one that’s been around for decades.

If bigger is truly better, however, a combined Park City/Canyons complex and eventually the One Wasatch interconnect will give Utah something Colorado can’t compete with in terms of sheer acreage. The closest any Colorado resort can come to 7,300 acres is Vail’s 5,289, which makes it the largest single-mountain resort in North America.

The largest ski complex on the continent is Whistler/Blackcomb – linked by an incredibly soaring gondola — at 8,171 acres. Vail Resorts could come close in Colorado if it were to someday link Vail with Beaver Creek (1,818 acres) – a complex that would total 8,107 acres.

But that interconnect remains a distance fantasy of Vail’s founding fathers that would require a permitting miracle given the amount of public land involved, although at one point Vail did own the Meadow Mountain ski area (now a tubing hill) between the two resorts. Now it also contains the local Forest Service headquarters after Vail sold the property years ago. The town of Minturn also might have something to say about such a plan, although there are some advocates of a Minturn ski portal living in that funky old railroad town at the bottom of the Minturn Mile – a famous backcountry ski egress off Vail Mountain.

Environmentally speaking, I think lift-connected resorts make a lot of sense, removing cars from the roads and encouraging public transportation in general. Park your car for a week and get around on free shuttles and lifts. Better yet, take a shuttle from the airport and leave your car at home.

Telluride has just such a commuter gondola linking its truly classic ski town to the swanky real estate development of Mountain Village, and one resort complex in Colorado that could rival One Wasatch is Aspen.

Connect all four Aspen ski areas — Snowmass, (3,332 acres), Aspen Mountain, (675), Aspen Highlands (1,040) and Buttermilk (470) — and you’d have some of the best skiing on the planet linked up into a 5,517-acre complex. Of course, that’s still just a little bit bigger than Vail.

But an Aspen interconnect would be a game-changer in Colorado, allowing people to stay in Snowmass Village and ski over to the quintessential mining-town-turned-ski-town of Aspen and vice versa. That’s what’s really attractive about interconnects for the average tourist. It’s not so much the ski-terrain access as it is the ability to tour between ski towns, have lunch somewhere else and ski back.

There’s been talk of connecting some of the Aspen mountains in the past, such as Snowmass to tiny Buttermilk (site of the globally renowned Winter X Games) through Burnt Mountain, but that plan drew opposition from no less a luminary than ski mountaineer Lou Dawson.

Part of the charm of skiing in Europe is touring between quaint ski villages, wining, dining and touring back. A Vail-to Minturn-to-Beaver Creek-to-Edwards connection could achieve something like that in Colorado, but there would be huge opposition from environmentalists, some Minturn residents and backcountry skiers seeking to protect their private stashes.

From Vail’s Outer Mongolia Bowl you can see the slopes of Beaver Creek to the west and Copper Mountain to the east, but – unlike the Utah resorts – there are huge swaths of public land in between. Plus you now have the question of whether Vail Resorts and Powdr Corp. will ever be able to play nice again after months of bitter litigation at Park City.

Former Park City owner Powdr owns Copper, which sits between Vail and Vail Resorts’ Breckenridge ski complex. But the distances are so much greater than the Wasatch ski areas, and there’s the matter of all that public land in between in Colorado. It’s mostly all private in Utah.

That includes arguably the best skiing in the state at Alta/Snowbird, where expert skiers who like to hike will continue to congregate rather than the intermediate pitches of Park City, which fit so nicely into Vail’s quiver of big but relatively benign resorts like Vail, Breck, Keystone and Heavenly.

And Snowbird is now owned by the Cumming family, which also owns Powdr, so that’s another complicating factor in the One Wasatch equation. Ironically, Dick Bass, brother of former Vail owner Harry Bass, recently sold Snowbird to Ian Cumming.

If you’re a true expert skier, you don’t really go to Colorado to ski Vail or Utah to ski Park City or Lake Tahoe to ski Heavenly. You’re more likely to be drawn to Aspen, Crested Butte or Telluride in Colorado, Alta/Snowbird in Utah and Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows in Tahoe.

Which brings me to another interconnect scenario involving another Colorado company, KSL Capital Partners. Lake Tahoe’s many resorts are in some cases closely grouped and ideal for Euro-style interconnects, but that’s especially true of KSL’s Squaw/Alpine complex, which no less of an industry expert than Warren Miller would like to see connected all the way to Homewood.

Right now Squaw Valley (3,600 acres) and Alpine Meadows (2,400) are side by side and can be skied in one day on one ticket, but the interconnect is less than ideal. That could change in just a few years if a deal can be worked out with the private resort of White Wolf in between the two.

Locals there are pumped about what would then be the largest interconnected ski complex in the United States at more than 6,000 skiable acres, but with the Park City deal now in the books, they’ll ultimately have to settle for second best in the U.S. and third in North America.

Regardless, it’s clear that with no new ski areas being built in the last couple of decades and none on the horizon, we’ve boldly entered into the Era of the Interconnect.



Park Record 4

Park Record: Utah ski interconnect revisited

Is ONE Wasatch anything new?

David Hampshire, The Park Record – Posted:   09/09/2014 05:09:27 PM MDT

The glaciers may be on their way out, but some things [besides Congress] still move at a glacial pace.

A few years back, Raivo Puusemp, one of Nathan Rafferty’s predecessors as president of Ski Utah, told this reporter about the Utah Ski Interconnect, a plan to link Park City with Brighton, Solitude, Alta and Snowbird.

“Nationwide, this is the biggest thing in skiing since the first chairlift at Sun Valley,” Puusemp said with a touch of hyperbole. “Everybody is jumping on it.”

Actually, it was more than a few years back. It was the fall of 1982. And the concept wasn’t new even then. It had been kicked around since the early days of Treasure Mountains, now Park City Mountain Resort.

In October 1988, SKI Magazine revisited the Interconnect proposal.

“The ambitious Interconnect plan is currently on hold in the wake of Salt Lake County’s decision to formulate a master plan to decide the future of the seven canyons which make up the Wasatch Front and hold most of Utah’s famous ski resorts,” the magazine reported.

The story continued with this quote from Ralph Becker of Bear West, the consulting firm hired to oversee the master-plan process: “The Interconnect, ski traffic, ski area expansion and whether or not to pursue an Olympic bid are all major areas of concern.”

Becker is now the mayor of Salt Lake City and the Olympics have come and gone. But, as for those other issues, well, isn’t that what Mountain Accord is still talking about now?

Puusemp’s plan included only one local mountain, Park City Mountain Resort, then known as Park City Ski Area.

Canyons Resort, then known as ParkWest, was considered too small and too isolated to deserve inclusion. And the ownership of Deer Valley, in just its second year of operation, was being deliberately noncommittal.

“I think the concept is just great,” said John Miiller, then executive vice president of Deer Valley. “But there are a lot of unanswered questions about Ski Interconnect. There’s ownership of land, and who’s going to build what, and how the ticket system works, and so on and so forth.”

[Reporter's note: Yes, there are two "i"s in Miiller and two "u"s in Puusemp, which might have caused spell check to crash had there been such a thing in 1982.]

Miiller didn’t mention snowboards back then, because they weren’t an issue. In 1982 only one U.S. resort Vermont’s Suicide Six allowed Jake Burton’s new gadget on its slopes, according to But they’re an issue now, with Alta and Deer Valley among three U.S. resorts that still keep boarders on the sidelines.

Bob Wheaton, now the president and general manager at Deer Valley, said One Wasatch already has a template for settling the snowboard issue. He pointed that Alta and Snowbird already sell an “AltaBird” pass that’s honored at both resorts only if you’re on skis. If you’re on a snowboard, you stay at Snowbird.

“They already have that figured out and have been doing that for a number of years now,” he said.

And, Wheaton added, several issues ticketing, for example — have been resolved in the intervening years.

“I think it (ONE Wasatch) is feasible in a shorter time than people think because some of the issues have been thought through already,” he said.

In last week’s appearance at the Summit County Council meeting, Rafferty noted that the resorts aren’t as far apart physically as they once were.

“They’ve really grown in proximity, closer and closer together over the years, and I think that’s a big reason why this concept is coming to fruition now.”

For more about ONE Wasatch, check out David Hampshire’s accompanying story, “Ski Utah puts its cards on the table.”


AP: Details emerge on plan to link 7 Utah ski resorts

Details emerge on plan to link 7 Utah ski resorts

September 9, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah ski officials said Tuesday they’ve chosen two spots for lifts that would be lynchpins in an ambitious long-term plan to link seven ski areas that would give the state a European-style experience.

The new details mark another small step forward in a project that is likely many years away from coming to fruition. Executives from seven ski resorts committed to the project in April after decades of discussion.

One lift would be in Grizzly Gulch and connect Solitude Mountain Resort in the Big Cottonwood Canyon to Alta Ski Area in the Little Cottonwood Canyon, Ski Utah announced. The other would be at Guardsman Pass and link Park City Mountain Resort to Brighton Resort in the Big Cottonwood.

The project remains in the conceptual phase with the latest announcement intended to illicit feedback and create excitement, said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, a trade organization spearheading the project.

“We just want to be deliberate and thoughtful in how this rolls out,” Rafferty said, while adding, “It’s an exciting and fun step for our industry here in Utah.”

The project is expected to cost up to $30 million, paid for entirely by the resorts. No timetable has been set for work.

It would link Alta Ski Area, Brighton Resort, Canyons Resort, Deer Valley Resort, Park City Mountain Resort, Snowbird Ski Resort and Solitude Mountain Resort. Skiers who buy one pass would have access to 100 lifts, 750 ski runs and more than 18,000 skiable acres.

By combining 25 square miles of terrain, the Utah resorts could offer North America’s largest skiing complex — three times the size of Vail, Colorado and twice as big as Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia.

It would create an experience unique to North America. In Europe, lifts connecting ski areas are common. In the U.S., a daily pass to a ski resort usually confines you to that resort no matter how close a neighboring resort is.

The project, which is being called “One Wasatch,” is opposed by backcountry skiers and wilderness advocates who say more buildup will damage pristine areas used by outdoor enthusiasts and harm the watershed.

The new details did nothing to alleviate their concerns. The project is a marketing ploy to bring more skiers to the state at the expense of hikers, backcountry skiers, snowshoers and wildlife photographers who would be negatively affected, said Alex Schmidt, campaign coordinator of Save Our Canyons.

“We want to preserve this area for its wild qualities,” Schmidt said.

Rafferty is aware of the concerns and said they are working with all groups. He said the ski resorts have long been good stewards of the watershed, and emphasized that it’s not impossible to link the resorts while protecting the environment and backcountry.

“While it does take some new terrain to make these connections possible, I don’t think it irreparably damages our unrivaled backcountry experience,” Rafferty said.

The two spots chosen for connecting points were picked by ski area officials who know the terrain best as the most efficient spots, Rafferty said. But, with the project in its infancy stages, they remain open to suggestions, he said.

A third connecting point needs to be selected to link Canyons Resort and Park City Mountain Resort, Rafferty said. Such plans have been delayed as long-running legal battle involving the resorts plays out, he said.

The upcoming ski season is set to begin in Utah in about two months.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Park Record 3

Park Record: Ski Utah puts its cards on the table

Ski Utah says ONE Wasatch is in tune with Mountain Accord

David Hampshire, The Park Record

Posted:   09/09/2014 05:09:30 PM MDT

On one hand there’s Mountain Accord, an effort by various entities to chart the future of the Wasatch Range, with a focus on the environment, recreation, transportation and the economy.

On the other hand there’s One Wasatch, a proposal by a ski industry group to connect seven Wasatch Front ski resorts into one huge alpine playground with 100 chairlifts and more than 700 runs on 18,000 skiable acres.

So is One Wasatch an attempt to preempt the Mountain Accord planning process,

as the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club charged in a recent online newsletter?

Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, which represents 14 Utah alpine resorts, defended the timing of the One Wasatch “concept” (his word) last week in a meeting of the Summit County Council at Kimball Junction.

“I think One Wasatch — when you really start putting lines on a map and understanding who wants to be where and how many people we can allow in one spot or another — they (Mountain Accord) needed to know the full story about what the resorts want to do and what their future expansion plans are,” Rafferty said in response to a question from Council Chairman Chris Robinson.

“And if you’re going to put any kind of transportation solution into and out of these mountains, it makes sense to know where the ski runs might go.”

However, Rafferty was careful to point out that One Wasatch is not designed as a transportation solution. “This is a ski experience. (But) I think there are transportation efficiencies, for sure.

Originally unveiled at a March 19, 2014, press conference in Salt Lake City, One Wasatch proposes to link Canyons, Park City Mountain Resort, Deer Valley, Brighton, Solitude, Alta and Snowbird with six strategically placed lifts. Rafferty noted last week that general managers from all seven resorts were present at that meeting.

“I think we do a really, really good job of cooperating between the ski areas. And I say that, and it’s kind of ironic to say that today and this week with what’s going on with Park City and Canyons. But outside of the courtroom and what goes on there, our GMs all sit together at our board meetings.”

Rafferty said after last week’s meeting that One Wasatch has no connection with the SkiLink proposal to build a lift between Solitude and Canyons.

“What makes this different is that this would connect the Park City area to Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon, but it would be on private land, which is a very different deal than SkiLink, which was on public land,” he said.

Linking the seven Utah resorts would create the largest ski area in North America, Rafferty told the county council.

“The next largest in North America is Whistler/Blackcomb (in British Columbia) those are two ski areas that were merged and they ski 8,000 acres between the two,” he said.

“As big as that is in North America, it’s really not much compared to Europe. The Trois Vallées in France is over 55,000 acres. Again, it’s tough to make an apples-to-apples comparison because they measure their skiing a little bit differently But this would be as close to kind of a European ski experience.”

According to Ski Utah statistics, skiers and snowboarders spend about $1.3 billion in the state each year, of which about $1.1 billion comes from out-of-state visitors. He portrayed the One Wasatch concept as a way to help Utah keep pace with its three major competitors in alpine skiing: Colorado, California and Vermont.

County Manager Bob Jasper wondered whether Sundance Resort is too far away to be a part of One Wasatch.

“Yeah, right now,” Rafferty said. “It would be a long, expensive lift. And I’m not speaking for Sundance, but they’ve got a really nice brand, and I’m not sure they want to throw a line out our way yet.”

Robinson said Ski Utah has done an excellent job of getting its wish list out on the table.

“I think it’s an example of Ski Utah knowing what it wants,” he said. “Does Summit County know what it wants? Does Park City know what it wants? You guys have figured it out and you’re ahead of the game. We’re trying to figure it out as to what’s right for us, for the communities.”

For more about One Wasatch, check out David Hampshire’s accompanying story, “Utah ski interconnect revisited.”


Salt Lake Tribune: Ski Utah Pitching New Plan to Link 7 Resorts

Salt Lake Tribune: Ski Utah Pitching New Plan to Link 7 Resorts

By Mike Gorrell – Published: September 9, 2014 10:28AM

Ski Utah is offering a few more details about where lifts would be needed to make One Wasatch, its plan for interconnecting the seven Wasatch Mountain ski resorts, a reality.

Two sets of lifts are envisioned in a conceptual plan to be released Tuesday, said Nathan Rafferty, president and CEO of Ski Utah, marketing arm for the state’s ski industry.

The first set, connecting Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood canyons, would require Alta Ski Area to install a lift up Grizzly Gulch to the ridgeline, where it would hook up with a lift coming up Honeycomb Canyon from Solitude Mountain Resort.

The connection between Big Cottonwood and the Park City side of the Wasatch would take place in the Guardsman Pass area. One lift would make it possible for riders coming from Brighton’s Great Western lift to reach Park City Mountain Resort, while the other would help transport skiers and snowboarders from PCMR’s Jupiter Bowl area over to Brighton.

This latest plan does away with the proposed Ski Link hookup between Solitude and Canyons Resort.

Conservationists and backcountry skiers reviled Ski Link as a precursor to the interconnect plan, in part because it opened up hard-to-access terrain to people riding lifts. But Ski Link has been on the backburner for more than a year, ever since Canyons Resort turned its attention instead to acquiring PCMR.

Because of the unresolved litigation in that fight, the new design does not address a connection between Canyons and PCMR, physically the easiest to do.  No connection may be necessary if Canyons prevails in that lawsuit.

A 3rd District judge gave PCMR until Friday to post a $17.5 million bond that would keep the resort going through the upcoming season while PCMR appeals an earlier ruling upholding Canyons’ ability to evict it for failing to renew a mountainside lease on time.

The other three connections — between Deer Valley and PCMR, Brighton and Solitude, and Alta and Snowbird — already are in place.

“Connecting seven of Utah’s finest ski resorts while preserving both our water quality and an unrivaled backcountry task is not an impossible task,” Rafferty said Monday.

“We have decided to move a step forward in the vision process by conceptualizing lift alignments on a map to continue providing information to the public, encouraging dialogue and listening to feedback about these possible connections,” he added, noting that a Ski Utah survey also showed solid public support for the interconnect idea.

Ski Utah sent a short survey to 35,000 online subscribers to its monthly newsletter or daily snow reports, receiving more than 3,000 back. Of those, 45 percent think an interconnect is a great idea, while another 28 percent said it was somewhat good. About 19 percent of respondents thought One Wasatch was a somewhat or very bad idea.

Neither the lift alignments nor the survey results surprised Save Our Canyons Executive Director Carl Fisher, nor did they diminish his objections to the concept.

“If we did a poll of our membership, we would find that 90 percent want to see wilderness expanded through the Wasatch Mountains,” he said. “Polls aren’t very conclusive when you’re not polling an objective portion of the community.”

Fisher said the lift alignments around Guardsman Pass and between the Cottonwood canyons were relatively easy to predict. The most troublesome part to him involves Alta’s plan for Grizzly Gulch, which he believes would require an amendment to the U.S. Forest Service master plan.

“That is not something we would support at all,” Fisher said. “The plan says the ski resorts in their existing configuration is adequate. We agree with that.”

At present, the Grizzly Gulch lift is contemplated to go over a parcel of Forest Service property that is not part of Alta’s special use permit, which would require extra environmental analysis.

That doesn’t concern Alta General Manager Onno Wieringa, noting he has spent years talking to the Forest Service about Grizzly Gulch’s potential and challenges.

“The Forest Service likes us to do what makes the most sense, to have the best alignment that works for the best of the people and not to do convoluted things,” Wieringa said. “This makes the best sense to us. We’ll see if we can work something out with the Forest Service.”

He likes Rafferty’s plan to submit the concept to Mountain Accord, a broad-based public and private effort trying to determine how best to treat the popular central Wasatch Mountains in a more heavily populated future.

“They have so many people involved and they’re really good at getting people to put their cards on the table and say ‘this is what we’re thinking.’ I would like to think that the recommendations [Mountain Accord] comes up with will be looked at by the Forest Service as a good public process,” Wieringa said.

Fisher also thinks Mountain Accord is a good forum to vet interconnect issues.

“It’s certainly more inclusive, definitely a more robust process,” he said. “Mountain Accord has its issues. It’s trying to bite off a whole lot and it’s a little overwhelming. But it’s a pretty good venue.”

No timetable has been set for development, Rafferty said.

Twitter: @sltribmikeg

Utah Adventure Journal

Utah Adventure Journal: What is ONE Wasatch?

Utah Adventure Journal: What is ONE Wasatch?

A Ticket To Ride—And Ski – Is It Finally Time for ONE Wasatch?

By Maggie Hughey AbuHaidar

ONE Wasatch would connect the 7 world-class ski resorts in Park City, Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons, on private land with private money, providing access to 18,000 skiable acres, 750 named runs, and 100 lifts—with a single lift ticket.  An interesting new concept?  “An interesting old concept,” gently corrected Park City Mayor Jack Thomas, who remembers the interconnect idea being kicked around as long as forty years ago.  One might wonder why, if it’s such a good idea, it hasn’t been done yet.  Nathan Rafferty, President and CEO of Ski Utah, assures me that the idea has “stayed around because it’s a good one, but so complicated that no one’s pushed it.”  Until now.

Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty

While there seems to be no single reason why Ski Utah finally decided to take the first step in creating a Central Wasatch interconnect—if announcing the concept can be considered a step—there are several reasons why it may be the right time to do so.  For one, all 7 resorts have agreed that it’s the right time.  When Ski Utah unveiled the concept in mid-March, the general managers of Snowbird, Alta, Solitude, Brighton, Canyons, Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR), and Deer Valley were all there.  Resorts that are in direct competition with each other—including two that are locked in a very public lawsuit—have joined forces because the concept, as they see it, will be good for the Utah ski industry as a whole.

Utah is, after all, in the ski and snowboard business.  The ski industry contributed $1.29 billion to the state’s economy during the 2012-2013 season, $1.076 billion of that coming from out-of-state and international visitors.  This represents about a 10% increase over the 2010-2011 season.  But the business of attracting skiers to Utah remains a cutthroat one, because the pool of people who ski is limited and our main competitors are close-by.  At the end of the day, “it’s a business decision,” said Onno Wieringa, General Manager of Alta, when asked about ONE Wasatch, adding that, “As a ski area, I think we need to fight for our industry.  One part of that is to make more people who ski come to Utah.”

The ONE Wasatch Concept

Ski Utah thinks that the ONE Wasatch concept might do just that.  As Mr. Rafferty explains, “The ski industry is not unlike other businesses, it must constantly innovate and improve its product.”  ONE Wasatch could do both.  With the addition of 4 inter-resort connections using 6 ski lifts, it would create the largest ski complex in North America, easily eclipsing Big Sky and Vail, at 5,532 and 5,289 acres, respectively.  Even Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, the current largest ski area in North America, is relatively small at 8,171 acres.  Not only would ONE Wasatch become the largest in North America, but it would stay that way.  It is Utah’s unique geography, with 7 resorts located in a twenty-square-mile radius, that makes the interconnect even possible.  As Deer Valley General Manager Bob Wheaton observed, “All of the resorts recognize that, from a marketing standpoint, this is an opportunity that no one else in North America can duplicate.”

This opportunity positions Utah well in a market where “the trend has been for larger resorts,” observed Dave DeSeelhorst, General Manager of Solitude.  As lifts move more people more quickly, grooming techniques reach more advanced terrain, skis go faster, and clothing keeps people warmer, skiers “can and want to cover more terrain in less days—more terrain on their vacations.”  Individual resorts face pressure to expand to accommodate their skiers’ desires for more.  The interconnect would allow the Central Wasatch resorts to expand their offerings without creating new terrain.  In effect, ONE Wasatch would offer Utah skiers a larger, virtual ski hill, by eliminating resort boundaries.  The days of spending your whole family ski trip within the borders of one ski resort would be over.  Unlike creating one massive resort, however, the character of each individual resort would be preserved.  People would still be able to frequent their favorite mountains, towns, inns, and watering holes, albeit with a little more daily flexibility over the snow.

Utah ski resorts believe in their product and believe that, once they get new skiers to try Utah skiing, they will inevitably come back.  ONE Wasatch is one more reason for skiers to try us out.  The concept is thus intended to increase visibility and marketability, which should, in turn, translate into increased skier days and revenue.  Utah currently enjoys about 4 million skier visits per year.  Mr. Rafferty believes ONE Wasatch will attract national and international attention sufficient to rival the post-2002 Olympics bump, or about one million additional annual skier visits over five years.  Others, including Mr. Wieringa, Mr. Wheaton, and Mr. DeSeelhorst, are more conservative, hoping for a 10-15% increase over time.  Even this more moderate bump would not be insignificant.  Based on recent estimates of how much skiers spend on an average day, an increase of just 10% could yield about $130,000,000 in additional annual revenue.

These skier days and revenue would be spread among 7 resorts and the many towns that provide pillows and bar stools.  And, for now, there seems to be plenty of room for them.  Bob Bonar, General Manager for Snowbird, feels that the Central Wasatch has the ski runs, hotels and restaurants to easily “go to five or six million skier visits per year.”  Mr. DeSeelhorst and Mr. Wieringa agree that the resorts are all operating under capacity.  According to Bill Malone, the President and CEO of the Park City Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, there are also plenty of empty beds in Park City, where lodging averages only 50% occupancy.  Of course, it’s closer to 80% during peak times, but that still leaves almost 5,000 empty pillows during Christmas.

This increase is obviously supported by the 7 participating resorts, but also by those resorts that are arguably marginalized by the concept.  John Loomis, Snowbasin Resort’s General Manager, looks at ONE Wasatch as “just one more arrow in the quiver of skiing in Utah.”  If the concept makes someone come to Utah who would ordinarily go to California or Colorado, Mr. Loomis figures, they’ll come back and the next time they might branch out.  Surprisingly, California seems to look at it much the same way for a similar reason.  Brook Taylor, from the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, wished Ski Utah “the best of luck, especially if it encourages more international tourism.”  In other words, “a rising tide raises all boats,” to borrow a well-worn phrase from Mr. Loomis. 

John Loomis of Snowbasin

Not only does ONE Wasatch enjoy broad industry support and seem to make business sense, but technology has largely solved logistical issues regarding revenue-sharing and ticketing that, at one time, might have seemed prohibitive.  By making it possible to track a skier’s lift usage, technology allows the resorts to determine what percentage of a skier’s time is spent where and to share revenue accordingly.  According to Mr. DeSeelhorst, Brighton and Solitude implemented this method with their Big Cottonwood pass this year with much success.  So, the issue is not whether the 7 resorts can share revenue, but rather, when they will adopt the system allowing them to do so.  Although Ski Utah has not determined how the ONE Wasatch ticket will be priced, technology can also help with cost-containment, by giving Ski Utah pricing flexibility.  That is, the ticket could be priced for one resort, all 7, or anywhere in-between.  “The resorts could even sell a pass for one lift,” Mr. Rafferty explained.  “It’s that scalable.”  Regardless, Mr. Rafferty and Mr. DeSeelhorst agreed that the resorts wouldn’t go to all this effort and then price the experience so high that it won’t get used.

Importantly, ONE Wasatch can also be accomplished on private land with private money.  That is, the necessary ski lifts would be built by the resorts on resort-owned property.  Although this in no way eliminates the need for permits and public input, it considerably simplifies the process.  In particular, the three Park City resorts could be connected with as few as three permit applications.  As PCMR General Manager Jenni Smith explained, these connections “will be fairly straightforward.  All are on private land within the county or City boundaries and these connections have been contemplated for some time.”  Even Mayor Thomas, who refused to weigh in on the interconnect concept as a whole, admitted that “there is support for a Park City interconnect.  It can be done responsibly, easily and without a dramatic impact.”

Although the PCMR-Brighton and Solitude-Alta connections are also on private land, they will require additional review due to their locations.  While the PCMR-Brighton connection has raised little concern, the Solitude-Alta connection through Grizzly Gulch has been met with loud protest.  Volume alone will not win the argument, but Ski Utah will face valid questions relating to watershed protection, backcountry access, and transportation.  The resorts can cite water studies to prove that water impacts have been and will be mitigated.  They can argue that backcountry skiers should be less obstructionist and more willing to help develop long-term, sustainable, backcountry access in Little Cottonwood Canyon.  They can point to on-going transportation planning by the Mountain Accord to demonstrate that the issue is being studied.  However, whether they win these arguments administratively may be less important than whether they win them in the court of public opinion.

Bob Bonar, Onno Wieringa, Nathan Rafferty (from left)

How ONE Wasatch as a whole may impact Park City is also a valid concern.  Surrounded as they are by public land, Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons face development restrictions not present in Park City.  As the primary bed-base for the concept, Park City may need to grow to accommodate ONE Wasatch.  Mr. Rafferty viewed this dilemma as a “great problem to have.”  Mr. Malone and Ms. Smith both felt that Park City could absorb the additional visitation, as it would occur over time.  Although the town may technically have sufficient places to sleep and eat, and even more room to grow in that regard, the roads are busy and the parking lots are already full.  Adding even more cars to this congestion concerns many locals.  Mayor Thomas, Mr. Malone, and Ms. Smith all stressed that careful transportation planning would be necessary, perhaps in conjunction with the Mountain Accord.

Nathan Rafferty announces ONE Wasatch

As an active participant in the Mountain Accord, Ski Utah is already engaged in long-term economic, environmental, recreation, and transportation planning for the central Wasatch Mountains.  That the Mountain Accord is already in place may very well be the last reason why ONE Wasatch’s timing is right.  ONE Wasatch does not need a stamp of approval from the Mountain Accord to proceed, but it should take advantage of the opportunity the process offers—to bring all interested players to the table—to work through the concept.  This sentiment was recently shared by Brad Petersen, Director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, who expressed concerns about transportion, backcountry access and safety, and the future threat of continued resort expansion.  He encouraged Ski Utah to facilitate the evaluation of ONE Wasatch through the Mountain Accord.  Done in that way, Mr. Petersen felt “cautiously optimistic that . . . ONE Wasatch can mitigate the concerns and build consensus for the project.”

This cautious optimism is shared by many who are excited by the possibilities that ONE Wasatch presents but mindful of its potential difficulties.  As Mr. Bonar said, “ONE Wasatch is a great way to do something really cool if it can be done in an environmentally-friendly way.”  Through the Mountain Accord, open discussion, education, and perhaps a few, good, long hikes through the proposed interconnect areas, this “if” is attainable.  Compromise is possible and to be encouraged, by both sides, because ONE Wasatch is an old idea whose time has finally come.

Wasatch Talk

By Louis Arevalo

“Ski resort GM’s line up to back ‘One Wasatch” was the headline of the Salt Lake Tribune Wednesday March19, 2014. The article referred to it as an historical event. Ski Utah, the marketing group representing each of the state’s resorts, announced the ski areas of the central Wasatch had agreed to work on making connections that would enable a person to visit all seven resorts with one ticket. According to the One Wasatch webpage these connections would be developed on private land and that this concept could be a reality within a few seasons. Further along the article stated that this connected Wasatch would be done with a collaborative effort presented through the Mountain Accord process, of which Ski Utah is a member. They conclude that when completed Utah could then boast that its skiing had better access and more options than the competition.

The map displayed on the One Wasatch website highlighted areas of the possible connections. The Monitors on the Park City Ridgeline between The Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort, Park City to Brighton over Guardsman’s Pass to Hidden Canyon, and Twin Lakes Pass and Grizzly Gulch between Solitude and Alta. These three areas are known in the local community as being areas of backcountry use. With this announcement Utah’s ski and snowboard industry had painted a bright picture of what their future might be, but what did others think?

“Who wants this expansion?” Salt Lake resident, physician, and photographer, Howie Garber asked. For the past 30 years he’s been fighting for local conservation and has authored the book, “Utah’s Wasatch Range: Four Season Refuge”, that makes a compelling case for preserving the very mountains the One Wasatch Concept would impact. I’d stopped by his house to get a signed copy. Sighting the Wasatch Tomorrow study, conducted between 2009-2010, Howie continued, “94% of the 16,000 citizens surveyed supported limiting resort expansions… When do local populations get an opportunity to determine how much takes place in their backyard? They’re building something for the sake of the tourists!” Howie was obviously concerned. He’s witnessed backcountry terrain in the mountains next to the Salt Lake Valley slowly gobbled up by ski area expansions; The Supreme lift at Alta, Honeycomb Return at Solitude, and Snake Creek and Great Western lifts at Brighton. His concern also carries over to the watershed, environment, development, lift prices, increased traffic and global warming. “40 years from now winters in Utah are going to look entirely different,” referring to the predictions that the winter snowlines in the Wasatch will retreat to higher elevations.

Howie Garber

Echoing Howie’s concern is Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons (SOC), a community driven conservation group whose focus is on preserving the Wasatch Mountains,  who told me that SOC was adamantly opposed to the One Wasatch Concept. He feels any further expansion would be a compromise on top of the compromises SOC has already made with the resorts. Save Our Canyons was actually created by locals who were concerned with overdevelopment of the Wasatch in response to the building of Snowbird Ski Resort in 1972.

A native of the Wasatch Range, Carl has been at SOC since 2001. He carries a spark in his eyes that is obviously fed by passion for his work. “We’ve received over a thousand comments since One Wasatch was announced,” Carl energetically continued. “Even out-of-state visitors say it will ruin why they come; which is easily accessed resorts and easily accessed backcountry.” Carl feels the local ski area’s appetite for expansion will never be sated and that this latest campaign is ill conceived. “One Wasatch is simply a talking point to help Utah compete with Colorado, California and international destinations.” He followed this up with some statistics. Skier days in Utah are on the rise mainly through backcountry use. SnowSport Industries of America puts backcountry users at over 5 million, signaling to Carl that Ski Utah is stepping on the toes of the out-of-bounds skiers with this move. That brought me back to Howie’s initial question, “Who really wants this?”

Carl Fisher

If Save Our Canyons could put a price tag on dispersed recreation then maybe more people would get on board with preserving the open spaces. To get more information on users of the Wasatch Mountains, SOC in partnership with Salt Lake City and the US Forest Service is rolling out dispersed recreation surveys this spring. They are hoping to use the data to gain a better understanding of the economic value of this natural resource. When asked about the links taking place on private land Carl responded that until we could see actual lift alignments there was not much to say. He did say that even if the towers were on private land, public lands would come into play, as well as the watershed, and the environment. However, Carl does hold some optimism that the concept will be run through the Mountain Accord of which he is an executive board member. “You should talk to Laynee Jones.”

“When are you going to write an article about the Mountain Accord?” Program director Laynee Jones had caught me off guard. “We have the decision makers at the table (cities, government entities, businesses, private sector and the public). It’s a real powerhouse and they’re here to find solutions and willing to compromise. This has never been seen before.”

She had a point. A civil engineer with experience in transportation and environmental consulting, Laynee had moved to Utah to live in the mountains. Being an active member of the outdoor community she’s focused her work on integrating manmade development with the natural world. Through the Mountain Accord Laynee sees an opportunity to do something remarkable that will preserve the Wasatch for generations to come. I didn’t have an answer for her at the time, but maybe “now” is appropriate.

Laynee Jones

What is the Mountain Accord? In brief it’s a progressive approach to develop a blueprint for future planning of the Central Wasatch Mountains of Utah. Using findings from previous studies the Mountain Accord is currently focused on developing guidelines for the area east from the Salt Lake International Airport to Summit and Wasatch Counties and from Interstate 80 south to the Little Cottonwood Canyon Divide. One key element that should not be overlooked is that this whole process is open to the public. Anyone may submit comments in writing or online, review the group’s documents and attend stakeholder meetings.

Laynee explained that currently the four systems groups of transportation, environmental, economic and recreation are independently gathering best-course-of-action ideas for their individual sets for the next 150 years in the study area. This August all groups will be presenting their idealized scenarios. As Laynee described it they will figuratively be laying plans one on top of each other to discover how closely or how far apart each plan lines up. She predicts there will be huge areas of agreement and small areas of disagreement.

When I asked Laynee about One Wasatch she responded that the concept would have to be presented to Mountain Accord through one of the groups. She then clarified that there is agreement from all parties and entities involved with the Mountain Accord on preserving the Wasatch with an emphasis on the transportation issues. In fact everyone I spoke with agreed that when it came to transportation there was room for improvement. “This is an area where we can’t afford to do nothing.”

My next conversation was with Black Diamond Equipment’s CEO and Mountain Accord executive board member, Peter Metcalf. He had multiple perspectives on the One Wasatch Concept. Personally he is against ski area expansion and, like Carl, wants a better understanding of the value of the surrounding open spaces. In the past 25 years, since bringing Black Diamond Equipment to Salt Lake, the expansion of ski resorts within the Wasatch Mountains has been a constant fight. The availability of inbounds and out-of-bounds skiing was one of the initial reasons the company chose the Wasatch. His second perspective comes from his professional experience. He considers the One Wasatch Concept a marketing move to attract more skiers to the state and understands Ski Utah’s desire to one-up the competition, but he doesn’t buy it. “Who’s really going to ski all resorts in one day and is it even possible without sitting on lifts all day long AND doing mediocre traverses?” Peter continued by reflecting items I’d heard from Carl, Howie and Laynee. Winter backcountry use throughout the Wasatch is growing as well as summer use. These segments of users (hikers, bikers, campers, climbers) have to be considered in the overall plan.

Peter Metcalf

Like Carl, Peter was also hopeful there could be a positive outcome. He counseled to move forward slowly and get the community involved. And if the resorts really want to pursue these connections he had some ideas. In the interest of finally putting an end to ski resort expansion he has come up with a scenario dubbed the “Grand Bargain.”

“To me that grand bargain would be defined as approval of the interconnect as part of a much larger Wasatch agreement that would include the following: a route that was the least impactful to the existing Wasatch backcountry ski experience, minimal & 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 (assign to Utah or Summit County open lands) via conservation easements on all private lands surrounding the new lifts,  binding agreements between the ski areas and the forest service to never expand the ski areas beyond their current boundaries, and an abandonment by Snowbird of their desire to build a tram from the top of Hidden Peak to the top of American Fork Twin Peaks.”

Peter had given me a lot to consider. I needed to follow up with Carl.

Carl wasn’t super enthused about Peter’s “grand bargain” idea and left me with this statement. “What we have today (in the Wasatch) can’t be found anywhere else in the world. It’s what puts Utah on the map. Losing it would be to the detriment not only of the ski areas but the greater Utah economy.”

Eventually I was back where I began, sitting in Howie’s living room asking questions.

Over the next 30-40 years the population of Utah is predicted to double and with it so will the pressure on the Wasatch Mountains. Having the ski industry focused on growing their numbers while the community faces the issues of clean air, growing populations, transportation, watershed, environment and development is all part of the picture. Who wants One Wasatch? I’m sure tons of people who are connected to the ski tourism industry and love skiing at Utah’s resorts. Who doesn’t want this? Maybe people who find refuge in this small gem of a range. And I’m certain there are people who want both. Howie broke the heaviness in the air.

“The bottom line, Louie, is that it’s about the preservation of powder skiing, which I truly believe is a dwindling natural resource!” We both laughed, but he was serious. For him it’s powder, for someone else it could be wildflowers and others, the value they find in open space. For Ski Utah it’s sharing our world-class terrain. If we can agree that everyone is passionate about preserving the Wasatch then the only question we need to ask is how can we do that best?