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The idea of connecting Canyons and Solitude ski resorts with a gondola amped up Thursday when Republicans in Utah's congressional delegation introduced legislation to seal the deal.
Both the concept and the means of accomplishing it immediately came under fire.
"They've got the horse before the cart," said Jeff Niermeyer, deputy director of Salt Lake City's department of public utilities and overseer of watershed protection in Big Cottonwood Canyon, where Solitude is located.
"I'm concerned about this process of taking federally protected watershed and having [Congress] turn around and work with ski areas to take it out of protected status and turn it over to private developers," he added.
Niermeyer was referring to the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act, filed in both chambers simultaneously by Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz.
Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, kept his distance. "I would not vote for this bill," he added, predicting "it's difficult for legislation to move in Washington, in any way, shape or form when watershed is involved."
The legislation proposes to sell 30.3 acres of public land in Big Cottonwood, at fair market value, to a subsidiary of Talisker Mountain Inc., a Canadian company that owns Canyons Resort outside of Park City.
Making all of the land under the lift-line private would remove the Forest Service from the regulatory process.
"By freeing up this small sliver of land and making access between the two regions convenient for all, we will improve our ability to showcase Utah's diverse and world-class mountain terrain," said Bishop in a joint news release from the Republican congressmen.
They contend the gondola would create 500 permanent jobs and infuse $50 million annually into Utah's economy by uniting 6,000 acres of skiable mountain terrain.
Dubbed SkiLink, the eight-passenger gondola would begin in an area between Canyons Resort's Dreamscape and Dream Catcher chairlifts. It would go over a ridge into Big Cottonwood, down the hill and over the canyon road to the west end of Solitude's Moonbeam parking lot.
The ride would take 11 minutes, said Canyons managing director Mike Goar, eliminating the hour drive it now takes visitors from his resort to reach Solitude. The result? Reduced traffic congestion and air pollution.
"SkiLink enhances the Utah skiing experience. That's why we call it a game changer," he said. "It changes our ability to compete against other ski states and regions. When we talk about the economic development of a project like this, that's what drives it. It's bringing more skiers to the state of Utah. Our winter tourism will benefit across the board."
The U.S. Forest Service has stifled that potential with its 2003 forest plan that prohibits ski area expansion in the central Wasatch Mountains, said Solitude owner David DeSeelhorst. He echoed Goar's argument that the gondola was a transportation initiative, not a resort expansion, bridging the distance between the two resorts without adding more skiable terrain.
Their perspective drew scoffs from critics.
"I don't think they are being totally honest," said Niermeyer. "They are trying to masquerade this ski-area expansion as a transportation alternative. Salt Lake County is actually looking at a real mountain transportation corridor study … that will really address transportation issues."
Peter Metcalf, owner of Holladay-based backcountry skiing and outdoor gear manufacturer Black Diamond, lambasted the proposal as a "novelty, a way to fill hotels at the Canyons for the benefit of a Canadian businessman to the detriment of the wilderness and backcountry quality of the Wasatch.
"It would start an arms race for all of the other resorts to run lifts over the Wasatch ridges because Talisker has done it," he added. Metcalf sits on a ski and snowboard industry working group of the Governor's Office of Economic Development that unanimously drafted a letter Wednesday opposing a congressionally mandated sale.
The delegation's use of legislation drafted without public input offended Metcalf and Niemeyer as well as Carl Fisher, executive director of the conservation group Save Our Canyons, and Utah Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City.
Observing that the Forest Service plan was formulated after an extensive public process, Fisher said, "it is pretty discouraging that members of the delegation would throw [existing] public comment on public lands issues aside and just steamroll the forest plan."
He added that Talisker had backtracked on its pledge to keep the conservation community involved in the process by drafting legislation secretly with the delegation.
Consequently, Fisher said, "it's going to be a long fight and not a nice one either."
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Removes U.S. Forest Service from regulatory process by selling 30.3 acres of public land in Big Cottonwood Canyon to Canyons Resort subsidiary
Approval process then would fall to Salt Lake County, with input from Salt Lake City watershed officials
Proponents contend it would create jobs, reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, and pique out-of-state interest in Utah's concentration of ski resorts
Opponents argue it would damage watershed, infringe on backcountry skiing and would not yield environmental benefits claimed by proponents