"While we appreciate the desire of the bill's proponents to reduce traffic between the two resorts, the Department [of Agriculture] does not support" the proposed SkiLink project, Gregory Smith, the Agriculture Department's acting deputy chief of staff, testified Friday.
Appearing before the House Natural Resources subcommittee over national parks and forests, Smith said the department, which oversees national forests, has concerns about the legislation. Among those are that it would require the government to sell the land to private owners, who could then do with it what they want, and that the department can't verify the reduction in traffic that resort owners claim would occur with a gondola.
But Salt Lake County Councilman Michael Jensen countered that SkiLink is a "unique solution" to a growing need for transportation between resorts and would infuse $51 million into the Utah economy in its first year, attract 75,000 people and add some 500 jobs.
"There have already been multiple studies over three decades," Jensen said. "It's time to do something."
The legislation, sponsored by Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, would require the Forest Service to sell 30.3 acres of public land to a subsidiary of Talisker Mountain Inc., a Canadian company that owns Canyons Resort near Park City. The company wants to build an eight-person gondola stretching two miles from Canyons Resort over a ridge into Big Cottonwood Canyon, landing in Solitude's Moonbeam parking lot.
Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee have introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
The proposal has stirred up a slew of supporters and detractors. Bishop, who chaired the subcommittee hearing, said the SkiLink measure would enhance the state's tourism draw, "adding more tourists but hopefully not adding more tourism traffic going up the mountains to our resorts."
Canyons Resort's Managing Director Mike Goar said environmentalists should look to the benefits of a gondola between the two resorts shown in a study the company commissioned, including a 10 percent reduction of traffic on peak ski days and estimates of one million fewer miles driven and one million fewer pounds of greenhouse gases.
"This bill will create the most unique interconnected ski network in the United States and enhance the economic opportunities for the tourism and hospitality industries in Utah," Goar testified.
Critics hope the project is halted in Congress.
Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon on Friday joined with Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker in writing a letter opposing SkiLink.
"It violates our current policies, developed over decades of public processes, fails to acknowledge important resources and uses in the Wasatch Canyons, and would damage our prized environment and balance of public uses and users," the mayors said in a joint statement.
In an interview at the hearing, Becker said Canyons-Solitude should have pursued the gondola proposal through the regular process: apply through the Forest Service and go through local, community officials to start. Instead, they tried to "completely override" locals by going to Congress.
"This contradicts both the long-term approach and protections we've built in for Salt Lake canyons for watersheds and resources used by so many," Becker said.
Democratic Utah Rep. Jim Matheson, in whose district the SkiLink would be built, said he fears the legislation creates a "dangerous precedent" by the federal government overturning decades of planning and collaborative land-use decisions by Utah residents.
The measure "represents a top-down directive that short-circuits an open, collaborative approach," Matheson said in testimony submitted to the committee.
The conservation group Save Our Canyons, backcountry gear-maker Black Diamond Equipment and Utah Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, also combined on a news release denouncing the proposal and Bishop's "end run" around the established Forest Service process.
"Salt Lakers have been working for several years on wilderness protections to help preserve this area for future generations," said Carl Fisher, Save Our Canyons' executive director. "This SkiLink proposal not only does disservice to that very open and public process, but it also threatens water quality, the backcountry experience and opens doors to future expansions of ski areas."
Goar, the Canyons' managing director, said during a break in the hearing that watershed concerns would be addressed through an environmental analysis that would take place before a sale was finalized. If the project gains approval including through community zoning boards Goar said the resorts could start construction quickly.
"We're ready to move forward with it, but we realize we have a long road ahead," Goar said.
The House subcommittee did not take any action on the legislation Friday. No hearings are yet scheduled in the Senate.
Legislation would cut U.S. Forest Service out of regulatory role by requiring sale of 30.3 acres of public land to Canyons Resort subsidiary
Salt Lake County would then be over development approval, with input from Salt Lake City watershed officials
Supporters claim it would create jobs, increase revenue and reduce traffic congestion and air pollution
Opponents argue it would damage watershed, infringe on backcountry skiing and sidestep normal approval steps.