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.”
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.”
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