What will become of the backcountry in Utah’s Wasatch?

In Park City, a decades-long battle against the resort industry may be all but over.

Paige Blankenbuehler - Nov. 24, 2015

On a ski tour of the backcountry in Utah’s Wasatch Range in the early 1970s, a small group of skiers were at Gad Valley, near the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, contemplating the drop onto an untouched slope, when a man at the bottom of the run waved them away. Thinking perhaps they were being warned of avalanche danger, the crew turned back and descended over a lousy, bumpy route. At the bottom, they again encountered the man, a well-known French skier named Jean-Claude Killy. They had not, in fact, been in danger at all. Rather, Killy had been cast in a promotional ad for Snowbird Ski Resort and needed a pristine slope for the day’s photo shoot.

Among the backcountry crew angered that day was Gale Dick, a University of Utah professor who would go on to found Save Our Canyons, a long-standing organization that’s fought for more than four decades to preserve the Wasatch Range. People like to tell that story these days in Park City because it speaks to a decades-long conflict, between backcountry boarders and skiers and their on-piste fellows. That conflict may soon be coming to a close. Vail Resorts, Inc., having purchased and consolidated two Utah ski areas over the past year, opened for its first season as the country’s largest ski resort on Saturday. That has created an impetus for broader consolidation of six resorts across a wide swath of the Wasatch, and more urgency among its opponents.

The Wasatch abuts Salt Lake City and its exurbs, an abundant offering of wilderness at the doorstep of a metropolis. Such easy access to the mountains has over the years created a ski mecca—and a paradox: a wild-but-not-too-wild experience that has become its own worst enemy.

Resort skiing here has a lengthy history, beginning with the Brighton Ski Resort (1936), followed by Alta Ski Area (1938), Solitude Mountain Resort (1957), Park City Mountain Resort (1963), Canyons Resort (1968), Snowbird Ski Resort (1971), and Deer Valley Resort Company (1981). All six resorts are crowded into the Central Wasatch, over a relatively small 64,000 acres. For decades, that proximity has fueled a dream among Utah’s ski executives to unify one prodigious resort, in hopes of building on an already lucrative industry, one that brought more than 4 million visitors and 18,000 jobs to the state last year.

But with gear getting cheaper and lift tickets getting pricier, more people have begun venturing into the backcountry. That has broadened a subculture here, many of whom see themselves more akin to Gale Dick than to Jean-Claude Killy—and, increasingly, squeezed out. “We need to hold onto everything that we can,” says Carl Fisher, today’s executive director of Save Our Canyons, which is leading a coalition, 7,500 members strong, to keep the Wasatch backcountry open. “We have this intrinsic value of landscapes that are in jeopardy because of the greed of a few.”

The rivalry has been around a very long time, between free-wheeling backcountry skiers and boarders, and the in-bounds/side-country crowd. Those issues usually have to do with access to the public lands wedged between the resorts or decades of development. A few times, the backcountry crew even won against the resorts. Shortly after the organization was born, the group fought a Snowbird Resort plan to build condos in Little Cottonwood Canyon. In 1989, Save Our Canyons worked with Salt Lake County to draft (and eventually adopt) a Canyons Master Plan that guided the permit process on both public and private lands in the Wasatch. Then, in 2002, they prevented commercial flight paths from flying over the backcountry. Since then, the group has fought to limit development in the range.

In 2013, a resort connectivity project called SkiLink emerged and a faction of more radical backcountry users, the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, formed to join the fight and provide a unified voice for the narrow interests of the backcountry community, distinct from the broader goals of Save Our Canyons. In a short amount of time the group rallied hundreds of backcountry skiers and riders and, with the help of the Save Our Canyons, they defeated the SkiLink proposal. Jamie Kent, Wasatch Backcountry Alliance’s president executive director, says that because the SkiLink idea relied on resort connections via public lands, it was easy to rally support against it. “I could get anyone behind me,” he says. “I had everybody. Everyone loves the canyons.”

That was the last big victory for the backcountry supporters, and it came at a cost: It organized the industry, and now corporate interests, the state, and others are posing a new challenge.

With the merger of Park City and Canyons resorts by Vail, there’s even more momentum for the unification of the Wasatch’s five other resorts. In 2014, right on the heels of the SkiLink failure, Ski Utah, the state industry marketing arm, rolled out the “ONE Wasatch” proposal. Ski Utah repackaged the concept so that the necessary connections would be made over mostly private lands leased or owned by the resorts, instead of through public lands. Once Vail purchased Park City Mountain Resort and the Canyons, it automatically created the first connection of the ONE Wasatch concept. With just two more connections (and a couple cooperative drops of ski area boundary ropes), the 18,000-acre area could be interconnected.

“The ski industry has learned from their past mistakes and have come back with another, more powerful proposal,” Kent says. “They have packaged ONE Wasatch very well.”


This summer, the Park City and the Canyons resorts were connected. Now, only two more aerial lifts and a few cooperative drops of ski area boundary ropes are needed for the ONE Wasatch concept.

ONE Wasatch would connect the area’s six resorts with three aerial lifts. To those who love the backcountry, that means the clogging up of both vistas and slopes, as more people enter the backcountry via the connected resorts. But deeper than the obstruction of views, backcountry riders consider the consolidation an assault on a lifestyle and a degradation to a natural resource, making it more commercial, a flashy appeal to the well-heeled international market and a denigration of their version of wildness. Their quintessential lifestyle, they say, has been whittled away with each new development, expansion and marketing ploy to add skier days to the quota for national and international renown. “Nature is as perfect as it could be before you touch it or develop it,” Kent says. “How can you enjoy skiing when everything has been developed? That takes away the whole point.”

Proponents of ONE Wasatch, on the other hand, say the project will make Utah an international destination, modeled after the sprawling, European-style resorts of the Alps. A lot of other skiers would be happy to see this happen. David DuBois, an airline pilot who lives in Park City, says a ski area connection by gondolas and lifts, as proposed by ONE Wasatch, would be environmentally friendly. A ONE Wasatch connection would allow him to access resort skiing through Park City, then traverse to more varied skiing in Alta, Solitude or Snowbird. “It’s a no brainer for me,” DuBois says. “I’d much rather ski than be in a car.”

Nathan Rafferty, president of the Ski Utah association, says this is a chance to offer an “unrivaled” product to skiers. “There’s nowhere in North America that could tie so much acreage together.” He sympathizes with opponents, even if they reject his vision. “I’ve come to understand very intimately that people aren’t quick to embrace change,” he says. “We have an incredible product here (already), why would you change it? Well, I thought that about my iPhone 3, too, but things improve.”


Caleb Krausmann, left, and Logan Julian scope backcountry lines in Wolverine Cirque near Alta, Utah. Julian says the backcountry is getting more full, requiring people to hike a lot farther for a space to ski.
James Roh

For the moment, ONE Wasatch is stalled amid a tangle of interlocking interests, each fighting to get what they want from the mountains, slopes and canyons of the mountains. That process has been complicated by an even broader initiative called the Mountain Accord, which has put together some 40 different vested parties to figure out smarter development in the Wasatch and its watersheds. That includes proposals for transportation in the mountains, which has bearing on the gondola plans of ONE Wasatch. Once it’s clear how transportation might solve the crowding and parking problem in the area, there’s nothing preventing the ONE Wasatch proposal from initiating.

But Fisher, Kent and their supporters aren’t really giving up. Aside from ONE Wasatch falling apart from within, they have two chances to preserve at least some of the backcountry.

One is some sort of container wilderness designation that Fisher and Save Our Canyons are currently drafting to submit to congress. Fisher is drafting a plan that could label the Wasatch as a wilderness area, national monument or a conservation management area. Such a designation is a long shot, because ski industry executives say the package is too restrictive and should do more to promote recreation. That impasse has kept legislation from being introduced so far.

The other is negotiating with Alta Ski Area, a relatively small operation that is “ski only” and has traditionally been supportive of backcountry users. Alta owns that land that ONE Wasatch needs for a final connection across a mountain to nearby Brighton Resort. It’s not clear which way that negotiation will go. Publicly, Alta supports the ONE Wasatch connection, and if the project moves forward, Onno Wieringa, general manager of the resort, says the area would comply with a connection. “It’s a business decision,” he says. “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.”

Given the progress of ONE Wasatch and its support, the prognosis doesn’t look good for backcountry skiing in the area. Still, Fisher and Kent say there’s a chance of preserving some of the best spots.

To do that, they’ve adopted a grander vision of preservation of the Wasatch’s wildness by getting involved with the Mountain Accord. They see the accord as a way to leverage more protections for the area, to inhibit development and preserve the backcountry access points. But the accord is a monumentally difficult process—including participation from counties, cities, industry, the Department of Transportation, state legislators, and a host of others—and in reality, it’s a pretty blunt instrument to specifically protect the backcountry. The Mountain Accord was agreed on in July, but really what it amounts to now is an agreement among a lot of parties to protect the mountains. What that looks like remains to be seen, from transportation to public land swaps for consolidated land.

Nevertheless, inside that process, Fisher sees a chance to save at least one important piece of the backcountry, a 300-acre patch of land called Grizzly Gulch. Alta owns the land, but the resort has traditionally allowed backcountry riders there. The gulch itself is accessed by a parking lot not far from Alta, an easy drive from the city below. Its terrain is good for beginners, which makes it popular with a growing crowd of potential allies for the backcountry. And it remains on the table inside the Mountain Accord—even though some transportation plans in the accord would probably require development around the area.

“Grizzly Gulch was left as a big question mark in the Mountain Accord, and that little slice of 300 acres is a symbol of the opportunity to preserve another 80,000 acres,” Fisher says.

If nothing else, the area has the potential to galvanize support for the backcountry crowd. In Salt Lake last month, 70 or so backcountry skiers and riders packed inside a library meeting room for the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance’s second annual member meeting. (Save Our Canyons was simultaneously holding a happy hour meeting a five-minute drive across town.) The mood at this Wasatch Backcountry Alliance meeting was much more somber than it had been the year before, when the group had celebrated a victory against SkiLink. Instead, worry hung heavy among the diverse crowd, many of whom wore hooded sweatshirts and pensive expressions.

Kent, who is in his early 40s and is, incongruously, a real estate broker developer, stood before the crowd, looking exhausted. For months, he’d been studying up on the public land management process and regulations, all to understand the Mountain Accord, a nebulous bureaucratic process, and find a way to benefit his members. Many of them oppose the Mountain Accord, because it potentially means more people in the mountains. Kent seemed to be trying to convince them it could work, by potentially preserving places like Grizzly Gulch. It was a tough sell, and the members weren’t thrilled by the answers offered by Kent or Laynee Jones, the Mountain Accord liaison that spoke at the meeting.

“We’re going to continue to fight for Grizzly,” he said toward the end of the evening, as his three-year-old daughter, Ruby Jane, ran back and forth at the front of the room, tugging at the sleeve of his hoody. Then, taking a moment away from the questions, he looked at her and allowed himself a smile. “We’re almost done,” he said.

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial intern at High Country News


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The Inertia: What Does Utah’s Mountain Accord Mean for Skiers and Snowboarders?

By Andrew Rubenstein

August 31, 2015

Mountain Accord was signed earlier this month. While these terms, which effectively signal the end of Phase 1 of a long-haul designation project concerning the Central Wasatch in Utah, were decided upon a little while back, the signing still marks a major step forward in the preservation of the relevant mountain range. But what does the Accord mean for skiers and snowboarders? And what does this passing of sorts mean for ONE Wasatch?

For the next two to three years, not much. Now that the contents of the Accord have been agreed upon — again signaling the end of Phase 1 and beginning of Phase 2 — researchers will descend upon the area in order to study the land and determine the best course of action. Ultimately, the intent behind the Accord is Interconnectivity. Whether you like the notion of connecting all six Salt Lake resorts or not (six after the merger of Park City and Canyons), the signing of the Accord is an undeniable step in that direction. And with regard to ONE Wasatch, it really should ease concerns. The ambitious project would surely result in more visitors to the area, but the Accord includes preemptive measures that would reduce the environmental impact of attracting this additional traffic.

The Mountain Accord, signed by business leaders, legislators, and environmental activists, includes agreements for several resorts to trade large amounts of terrain to the Forest Service in exchange for plots of land near the base of their resorts. After the exchange occurs, these resorts will no longer be allowed to expand into the public land. For instance, Solitude Resort is parting with 240 acres of land and receiving 15 acres. The added lands will be at the base, allowing for more development of their village. Other factors being offered by the government include greater municipal resources, such as culinary water. The ski resorts are trying to create a better client experience for skiers and boarders without jeopardizing the land. While these resorts won’t be expanding their boundaries into that previously-owned land, the Accord could lead to the Resorts dropping the boundaries that separate one another.

An that, boys and girls, is where interconnectivity comes in, effectively making for 18,000 skiable acres accessible through any of the six resorts of the Central Wasatch. One way of achieving this is by connecting all of the mountains by lifts, whether they be chairs or gondolas. In a statement about the recent signing of the Accord, the president and CEO of Ski Utah, Nathan Rafferty, acknowledges that the “first of three needed connections has been approved and will be completed in time for 2015-16 season (Park City/Canyons).” The other necessary connections are between Little and Big Cottonwood Canyon, and Big Cottonwood Canyon and Park City. Finally, after dropping the rope separating Deer Valley and Park City, you could ride all six resorts in one day, or at least try. Another possible means of connecting the resorts is via a light transit rail, which would mark the first use of such technology at an American ski resort.

The potential light transit rail brings us to one of the two valid criticisms of the Accord and its implications with regard to ONE Wasatch: higher parking prices. First, higher parking prices are not not guaranteed; a price hike would be just one possible means of reducing environmentally harmful transportation — the Accord also calls for a more efficient transit system between the mountains, and there is the possibility of that aforementioned light transit rail. But if you are environmentally conscious, then adapting to these higher parking prices by taking the readily available buses and shuttles (or rail) will be a worthy sacrifice.

The reason the Mountain Accord brings ONE Wasatch to the forefront of the conversation is because the proposed interconnectivity will go a long way in reducing environmental harm, the fundamental aim of the Accord. The mega-mountain, which would be the largest in North American by more than two times the resort in second-place, will undoubtedly bring more vacationers to the Central Wasatch. If you are opposed to that outcome, keep in mind that those behind the Mountain Accord are motivated by the environmental concerns associated with an already increasing amount of visitors, as well as a growing population in the area.

“Increased pressure on our mountains from inevitable population and visitation growth,” Rafferty continues, “will limit our options and lead to forced decision-making.”

So the community is taking charge and addressing this inevitable population and visitation growth before they’re stuck with their back against the ropes. Sounds like a plan to me.

Last but not least, if you enjoy leaving the safety of on-piste and venturing into the Wasatch backcountry, don’t you worry — the Mountain Accord will make sure that ski resorts NEVER expand into your favorite untouched havens.



Associated Press: Ski resorts, conservationists OK blueprint for Wasatch range

By – Associated Press – Tuesday, July 14, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Ski resorts and conservationists have approved a wide-ranging blueprint for the future of the Wasatch Mountain range, though the deal doesn’t address a contentious proposal to connect all seven area resorts to offer skiers a European-style experience.

The agreement that got a unanimous thumbs-up from an executive committee Monday aims to balance growth with preservation in the mountains that form the backdrop of northern Utah’s fast-growing urban corridor and play a large part in the state’s $7.5 billion-a-year tourism industry.

Government officials say the nearly two years of effort was worth it to create a template that balances ski industry development with conservation, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

“What kept me at the table in moments when I was ready to walk away is knowing that no agreement is worse than the failure of doing nothing,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who co-chaired the committee.

Under the Mountain Accord approved Monday, the resorts agreed to leave untouched a total of some 2,000 acres of backcountry in exchange for U.S. Forest Service land near their bases.

Alta ski area, for example, got 160 acres at the bottom of the slopes as well as a hotel and shops while giving up expansion into some 600 acres of backcountry. Other resorts struck similar deals, though a proposal to give Snowbird access to land in Utah County’s American Fork Canyon was scrapped.

Utah County residents weren’t part of the planning process and protested, saying the area could be developed for skiers and closed the public.

“I’m a mountain climber and a cross-country skier. I don’t like the idea of a tram on the top of twin peaks between the summits,” American Fork resident Lance Harding told the Daily Herald newspaper of Provo.

He said he was glad to see the 415 acres removed. Locals hope to use the dustup to kick-start their own planning for American Fork Canyon.

Other issues were left open, including the One Wasatch concept backed by the ski industry that would let skiers buy a single ticket and hopscotch between resorts linked by trams, tunnels or rail lines.

Some backcountry skiers and wilderness advocates say the ambitious plan could damage pristine areas and the watershed.

Nathan Rafferty, president of industry group Ski Utah, said resorts still want One Wasatch but are flexible on how it will come together.

A formal signing ceremony for the Mountain Accord is expected to be scheduled in the next couple of weeks.



The Park Record: ONE Wasatch Stays in the Game

By Bob Lloyd

July 7, 2015

Nathan Rafferty was pulling into the Salt Lake airport last week just hours before boarding a flight to Washington, D.C.

As president and CEO of Ski Utah and the pro-resort representative to Mountain Accord, Rafferty was doing his duty to lobby Utah’s congressional delegation to support the tenets of the Accord: controlling development on both the front and back slopes of the Wasatch Mountains.

That means boundaries for the resorts, and for many of the ambitious plans that his group pushes, especially One Wasatch, which proposes to connect the dominant ski resorts between Park City and the Cottonwood canyons.

The One Wasatch plan is not dead, Rafferty insists. Despite the Mountain Accord’s shift to focus more on environmental issues and set clear lines of what acres can be developed and what should be left open, Rafferty said there’s no conflict between pushing for the Accord and pushing for connecting the ski resorts in some fashion.

“We need to be a team player,” he said from his car. “It’s up to us to be a team player, to be at the table and be involved with the decision-making that’s going on.”

That comes amid the build-up for the Accord’s critical meeting on Monday, July 13, of its executive board where it will decide if the plan moves forward. For Rafferty and Ski Utah, his goals focus on transportation, even though he agrees with the overall push.

“I think the ski resorts are generally agreeable,” he said.

“There are still a few details to sort through. In general, we’re supportive and there are a lot of great things that could come out of the Accord and so I’d say we’re optimistic.”

The most important goal for the resorts, Rafferty said, still is improving transportation, especially getting up both Cottonwood canyons during bad winter weather.

“We’re interested in any incremental improvement in transportation,” he said. “If it were a better bus system, we’d see that as a win. If it were something significant as a train, we’d certainly see that as a win in Little Cottonwood Canyon. We have the opportunity to move in the right direction for the future of our industry and for people who like to ski. I think it’s a good thing.”

Despite his group’s overall support for the Accord, connecting the resorts remains a chief focus. One Wasatch was introduced two years ago about the same time as Mountain Accord and addresses the interests of ski enthusiasts and resorts. Rafferty’s executive board comprises members of all major ski resorts, plus a host of business interests. Many board members have strong ties to Park City.

One Wasatch proposes to connect the ski resorts to increase the overall variety open to a skier. One pass would let a skier make several runs at any of the six resorts: Alta, Brighton, Snowbird and Solitude on the Salt Lake side, Park City Mountain Resort/Canyons and Deer Valley on the Park City side. This models some of the top ski areas in the world, especially Europe’s Alpine region.

One proposal to build a tunnel connecting Park City to the Cottonwood canyons has been scuttled by the Mountain Accord initiative. However, other ideas still live, Rafferty said. Connecting the two Cottonwood canyons certainly is possible, he said. A train could supplant the need for lifts.

“So it’s certainly in play. There are just so many moving parts to the Accord. So I think that’s always been a focus of the ski area the connectivity and it will remain to be a focus in the future.”

And there still are studies that will examine the costs and feasibilities of connecting the resorts. Even though the study is non-binding and Park City and Summit County officials insist the examination is for information only, connectivity still will be part of the document.

“The city has said they’re going to take a study and try to understand what that would do for Park City, not having any (part) actionable, just taking it slow and steady and studying it a little bit more: any kind of connectivity, and that covers a real vast array of connectivity, from going over the snow on your skis with chair lifts and ski runs to a tram.”

Many involved in Mountain Accord have clearly stated the group opposes ski lifts to connect the resorts. Their solution is to use buses or trains. No proposal in the Mountain Accord suggests connecting Cottonwood canyons resorts with Park City ones.

“The accord looked at the One Wasatch proposal which was a lift-base proposal and we did not support that as an idea,” said Andy Beerman, Park City Council member and the city’s representative to the Accord.

“What the Accord said is we think we can do this through transit solutions. We can connect our resorts via rail or bus and that’s what we’re focusing on at this point. And we’re not recommending aerial solutions as a transportation solution.”

The One Wasatch proposal traditionally has met stiff opposition from Save Our Canyons, the environmental group that also sits on the Accord board. Carl Fisher, the executive director, traveled to Washington with Rafferty last week and he says the One Wasatch proposal is too unpopular.

“People don’t like it, people don’t want it. One Wasatch is about ski area connectivity with lifts, and that comes at a significant cost to the many, many other uses. It will bisect some of the most popular mountain bike trails in the area. It will fragment wildlife habitat. It will displace backcountry skiers.”

Despite the opposition, Rafferty said he has no problem working within the Accord to plan the ski resorts’ future. That’s a good move for the industry.

“I still subscribe to the fact that doing nothing is a bad option for us, for we know the population of Utah is not going remain steady. The popularity of Park City is not going to remain steady and we have a real good idea that it’s going to increase. What are we doing to make it a more livable, a better place for both residents and our guests in the future?

“So we need to be making some of these big tough decisions now,” he said, “and sitting on our hands and doing nothing is not the right decision.”



Salt Lake Magazine: Resorts United

By Vanessa Conabee

May 3, 2015

The concept of ONE Wasatch, linking seven ski resorts together along the Wasatch Range, isn’t new. People have been weighing in on the pros and cons of dropping lines and putting in lifts for the past 30 years. But Vail Resort’s acquisition of Park City Mountain Resort, followed by Deer Valley’s announcement that it had purchased Solitude, has given the possibility tangible momentum. Nathan Rafferty, President and CEO of Ski Utah, the marketing firm of Utah’s Ski and Snowboard Association, is leading the drive. He gave us his thoughts on the project.

On pushing the seven-resort link

“We’re taking the lead on ONE Wasatch. I facilitate monthly meetings between the GMs of Utah ski resorts and talk with them almost daily. Our job is to educate people and encourage the conversation. Our opposition will say that the reason it hasn’t happened is because it’s a bad idea, or that it’s about water, but the real issue is land use. And also, it’s really complicated. Getting seven resorts to agree on a plan that involves capital projects including $5 to 10 million chairlifts—that’s going to take a lot of negotiating. Our goal isn’t to put as many chairlifts as we can up the Wasatch. It’s introducing a new experience to Utah, where you can ski from PCMR to Mineral Basin, and that’s an opportunity for an entirely different kind of skiing.”

On the winding road to the top

“I grew up in Utah (Salt Lake City) and attended the University of Arizona in Tucson. The idea of skiing as a career hadn’t occurred to me until I spoke to Jody Morrison (now City Recorder) at a Warren Miller ski show. I interned with Ski Utah and worked as a mountain host at PCMR before coming back to Ski Utah as their public relations director, eventually taking over as President and CEO in 2005.”

On off-season fun on a motorcycle 

“Last year I traversed across the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara during the Merzouga Rally, a six-day off-road motorcycle race through Morocco. I’m headed back for round two this October.”

On the famous “powder clause”

“We wrote a ‘powder clause’ into the employee bylaws that states that if more than a foot of snow falls overnight, the staff can play hooky as long as they work half again as many hours as they took off.”

Here comes the world

“We’re going to see a lot of change, and that’s hard for people. Utah is not going to remain a walled-in garden. We’ve seen over half of our 14 resorts change ownership, and that isn’t because the owners are struggling to get out of the business, it’s because everyone wants to be here. The real issue isn’t getting people to visit, it’s how to manage growth, and that’s a good problem. My parents taught me to leave something better than I found it, and if I could do that with our industry, I would view that as a success.”



Together4Utah discusses One Wasatch and Mountain Accord proposals

In this episode of Together 4 Utah, Thomas Wright and Jim Dabakis, tackle the One Wasatch/Mountain Accord. 

One Wasatch is the ski industry’s idea for linking resorts in Salt Lake and Summit counties. With the addition of just a few connecting ski lifts, the dream of turning seven Utah resorts into the largest contiguous ski experience in North America could easily become a reality.

In this episode, you’ll hear from Nathan Rafferty, President and CEO of Ski Utah, and, Jamie Kent, the President of Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, and get their thoughts about all that is being discussed with the interconnect.


Curbed Ski

Curbed Ski: New Utah Blueprint Threatens the Future of ONE Wasatch

By Megan Barber

February 9, 2015

Last week, Curbed Ski analyzed the ambitious new blueprint released from Mountain Accord, a group of 20 public and private entitiesworking together to preserve the future of Utah’s Wasatch mountains. For the first time ever, interest groups ranging from environmentalists to transportation officials have provided an outline of future options including a tunnel linking Alta and Brighton, a train running up Little Cottonwood Canyon, and an array of major land exchanges (read about the full plan over here). And while Mountain Accord is an ongoing process currently seeking public input on its plan, Curbed Ski wants to know what this all means for Utah’s other major ski country proposal:One Wasatch. Similar to the uber-connected mega resorts in Europes, One Wasatch would use only 3 new chairlifts to connect the 7 Wasatch ski areas. And although 68% of Curbed Ski readers think One Wasatch is a good thing for Utah ski country, if Mountain Accord succeeds, it’s unlikely that the current version of One Wasatch will happen.

There’s no doubt that a long-term plan for the Wasatch Mountains is both necessary and a good thing, but what that vision should look like depends on who you ask. Mountain Accord wants to improve transit service to the ski areas in order to reduce traffic, parking congestion, and automobile dependence. It also wants to preserve the Wasatch’s fragile watershed and maintain the current recreational opportunities. Here’s how the Mountain Accord blueprint directly relates to One Wasatch.

Mountain Accord wants increased environmental protection of lands. 

In exchange for better transportation options (trains, buses, etc.) to, from, and between the Wasatch ski areas, Mountain Accord proposes that around 2,000 acres of ski area-owned land be moved into permanent protection. This includes areas like the Pink Pine ridge, Mt. Superior, Flagstaff, Days Fork, upper Silver Fork, Davenport Hill, Grizzly Gulch and Guardsman Pass area. So what does this mean for One Wasatch?

Specifically, Mountain Accord is asking to preserve Grizzly Gulch, the site of the proposed connection between Alta and Solitude, and Guardsman Pass, the site of the proposed connection between Brighton and Park City Mountain Resort. If these lands were protected, then ski lifts would never be built and One Wasatch would be dead.

Mountain Accord wants to connect the ski resorts with transit and trails, not ski lifts. 

The whole premise of One Wasatch is to boost the Utah ski industry by creating an unparalleled ski experience in the United States. Mountain Accord, however, wants to connect the ski resorts with innovations in transit (trains, buses, toll lanes), not with chairlifts. This also means that Mountain Accord’s plan prioritizes the backcountry ski experience over expanded resort skiing. While under the Mountain Accord blueprint ski areas would gain about 100 acres of base development and some limited resort expansion (Snowbird into Mineral Basin and Mary Ellen Gulch, Solitude into Silver Fork, and Brighton into Hidden Canyon), the ski area boundaries would largely remain unchanged.

From this standpoint, the Mountain Accord blueprint and the goals of the One Wasatch proposal look impossible to reconcile. Of course, Mountain Accord is in its infancy and the blueprint will likely be modified considerably after the period of public comment. The One Wasatch plan could also be changed.

Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, told local Utah radio station KUER that he doesn’t think Mountain Accord completely ruins the One Wasatch plan. “I think everything is still on the table,” he said. “I’m excited that we’re talking about some of these big issues. I think Mountain Accord is doing a super job of negotiating some pretty tricky waters.”

At the moment however, it’s hard to see how both Mountain Accord and One Wasatch can happen. Stay tuned for updates.



The New York Times: In Salt Lake City, a Proposal to Link Ski Trails

By Christopher Solomon
January 14, 2015
A snowboarder at Solitude Mountain Resort, one of seven resorts in the Wasatch Mountains above Salt Lake City, Utah, that would be included in the OneWasatch megaresort. Credit Brian Thurber/Associated Press

Perhaps the biggest news lately in North American skiing has been the announcement in 2014 that seven ski resorts perched high above Salt Lake City hope to join hands to create the largest megaresort in North America. OneWasatch, as it’s being billed, would be a colossus, with one ski pass linking more than 100 lifts across Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, more than double the acreage of Whistler-Blackcomb in Canada, currently the continent’s largest ski resort. Its backers say OneWasatch would offer an experience akin to Europe’s linked valley-to-valley ski systems like Arlberg in Austria or Trois Vallées in France. 

The idea is ambitious. It’s sexy. It’s also hugely controversial. Opponents say linking the resorts isn’t right for the mountains, or for the people who play in them or who rely on them.

Most of the ski resorts that operate in the meringue of mountains above Salt Lake City are so tightly clustered that only a ridgeline separates some of them; others are already joined. Adding as few as five more chairlifts could create a vast, interconnected ski world. (Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley Resort already sit shoulder-to-shoulder, so they would simply need to drop a boundary rope.)

The vision of weaving together the resorts has been kicked around for half a century. But the idea now has more momentum than ever: In the last few months, Deer Valley’s owner bought Solitude Mountain Resort, across the mountains, and Colorado’s Vail Resorts bought Park City Mountain Resort after a long and nasty legal dispute. (Vail Resorts already runs Park City’s neighbor, Canyons Resort, for another owner, and has announced it will install a gondola lift between the two for next winter.) Supporters of OneWasatch say all seven resorts could be linked for roughly $30 million in private money.

Why do it? “It’s a huge marketing draw,” said Nathan Rafferty, president and chief executive of Ski Utah, which markets the state’s ski resorts. “It would simply create a ski experience in Utah that no one else in North American has, or could have.”

Utah’s resorts are ready for their next boost. The state’s ski industry got a lift in the years after the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Last year the state saw 4.2 million skier-visits, up from about 3 million at the time of the Olympics. That growth has started to plateau, however. The resorts, and nearby Salt Lake City, frequently have empty beds in winter, Mr. Rafferty pointed out. And the ski areas want something that sets them apart from competition like Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Vail, Colo. An interconnect “is the next big bump” that could propel business to 5 million skier-visits per winter, Mr. Rafferty said.

But opponents say the idea, though beguiling, falls apart upon closer inspection, for several reasons.

Among them is water. The high central Wasatch are this region’s water tower. Nearly 500,000 people in the Salt Lake Valley rely to some extent on melting snow that drains from the mountains. As a result, the Wasatch, though intensely used, are also intensely regulated. Dogs aren’t even allowed in some popular canyons.

A fine balance has been struck, which has protected water quality while continuing to permit recreational use, said Laura Briefer, water resources manager for the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities. But that balance is increasingly precarious, especially with the double threat of climate change and population growth, which is expected to increase by 46 percent in Salt Lake County by 2040.

The problem with OneWasatch is that a ski lift is never just a ski lift, Ms. Briefer said. Ski lifts mean new outbuildings, new access roads and felled trees. Such changes erode the water quality, and quantity, for people downstream who basically live in a desert.

While OneWasatch’s backers say their plan has no development attached to it, water officials and others argue that construction will inevitably follow the chairlifts. Ski lifts “are the camel’s nose under the tent,” Jeff Niermeyer, the director of the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, told this reporter two years ago when speaking about SkiLink, another controversial ski-connection proposal that has been shelved. Similar concerns apply to OneWasatch, Mr. Niermeyer said this month: “It still has the potential to draw a bunch of development into these canyons,” adding, “I am not willing to trade watershed protection for ‘wow’ factor.”

Other opponents worry about elbow room. Nearly 80 percent of Utah’s population lives at the feet of the Wasatch. The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which includes much of this high country, is one of the five most-visited national forests in the country. Millions play in the same postage stamp of mountains above Salt Lake City, a roughly 10-square-mile patch of crimped topography that includes those seven ski resorts. Backcountry skiers long ago named their beloved, crowded playground “WasAngeles.”

Jamie Kent, a real estate broker and president of the volunteer Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, said, “We’ve got it all: world-class lift-skiing, world-class backcountry skiing, world-class heli-skiing — and it’s all happening in this very small area, above 7,000 feet.” A tentative, hard-won detente has been struck among the user groups, Mr. Kent said. Now the ski areas want a larger piece of a pie that’s already completely spoken for, he said.

Residents have repeatedly said they love their ski resorts but don’t want them to grow. In a study conducted in 2009 and 2010 as part of work on the future of the most popular mountain canyons, nearly all Utah residents interviewed said they did not want resorts to expand beyond their existing boundaries. The long-range plan for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest calls for no such expansion.

While the new lifts would mostly be built on private land, the repercussions of these lifts would ripple far beyond that, Mr. Kent said. The biggest trend in skiing right now is “sidecountry” skiing — riding the chairlifts but then heading out beyond the groomed runs for a more adventurous experience. One proposed lift in the Grizzly Gulch area at Alta Ski Resort that would likely require some public land is particularly controversial. It would “wipe out many hundreds of acres of prime backcountry terrain, plus turn much of the central Wasatch into resort sidecountry,” a well-known local skier, Andrew McLean, wrote in an email.

Mr. Kent said his group understands that many of these lifts are being proposed for ski resorts’ private property. “But we also recognize that they operate largely on public land,” he added, explaining that these mountains are a patchwork of public and private ownership. “To quote the group Save our Canyons,” which focuses on protecting the Wasatch canyons, “ ‘It’s a public-private partnership. And partnerships balance out.”

There’s also disagreement about whether linking the ski resorts will make for, well, fun skiing. Mr. Rafferty of Ski Utah said that many visitors would use the interconnected resorts to move across the landscape in “more of an adventure style of skiing.” It will take a skier six chairlift rides, and two hours’ travel time, to ski between Snowbird, to the west, and Park City on the range’s east side. On blogs and in conversations, however, skiers have questioned whether anyone other than tourists would want to do that. After all, skiing from Park City to Snowbird is hardly the same as, say, skiing from a cup of coffee in Swiss Zermatt to a grappa in Italy’s Cervinia, with the Matterhorn always over your shoulder.

Why is Utah so interested in becoming someplace else, anyway? said Peter Metcalf, founder and chief executive of the outdoor gear maker Black Diamond Equipment, which is based in Salt Lake City. Mr. Metcalf noted that when he had asked Europeans why they come here, they looked at the wild peaks still untinseled by ski lifts and replied, “Because we don’t have this.”

No final decision has been made on linking the ski resorts. The proposal recently has been folded into the Mountain Accord, an effort involving many stakeholders including Mr. Metcalf, to hammer out a guiding plan for these mountains, including recreation and transportation.

In the meantime, the debate continues.