Bonar submitted a proposed master plan amendment last month to the Forest Service's Salt Lake Ranger District.
District Ranger Cathy Kahlow said her staff is evaluating the proposal and will decide by late summer or early fall whether to accept it. If accepted, she noted, expansion portions will require a full-blown environmental impact statement and changes to the Wasatch-Cache-Uinta National Forest plan.
That process seems certain to spark considerable interest, from the protectors of Salt Lake City's watershed to the conservationists who support Save Our Canyons, which is generally opposed to resort expansion in the Wasatch.
"It's another ski area expansion where resorts take public lands and give up nothing in return," said Save Our Canyons Executive Director Carl Fisher.
The envisioned expansion would add 780 acres of Mary Ellen Gulch into the resort's boundary. Bonar said Snowbird owns about half of the land already through the acquisition of mining claims; the Forest Service manages the rest.
Under U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson's Wasatch Mountain wilderness proposal, Snowbird could acquire even more lands in Mary Ellen Gulch in exchange for resort-owned parcels on the north side of Little Cottonwood Canyon, on mounts Flagstaff and Superior.
The top of the gulch offers "more of the same great powder terrain Snowbird already has for advanced skiers and boarders," said Bonar.
Mary Ellen Gulch's terrain also seems well-suited to spring skiing, important to a resort whose last day this season is June 20, said Snowbird spokesman Jared Ishkanian. It also is not used extensively by backcountry skiers, minimizing a flash point of controversy over use of the Wasatch Range, he added.
From the bottom of Mary Ellen, a proposed lift would carry skiers and boarders to "Sinners Pass" ridge, where they can descend into Mineral Basin. Snowbird wants to lengthen the Mineral Basin Express chairlift by about 50 percent to pick up these riders and to add about 1,000 feet of intermediate-to-beginner slope at the bottom.
The extended Express lift would take riders back to Hidden Peak, completing a loop.
While experts will benefit from that expansion, Snowbird also wants to improve its opportunities for beginners. It is asking to put a lift up a gently sloping hill on the north side of Little Cottonwood Creek, directly across from Baby Thunder Lift, on the resort's down-canyon end. A bridge over the creek would connect the new beginner area to Baby Thunder.
Nine of Snowbird's 13 proposals address projects currently in the resort, such as adding night skiing along Gadzoom lift, adding onto the Mid-Gad and Gad Valley day lodges and developing new bike trails and service roads.
Save Our Canyons' Fisher was disappointed Snowbird submitted the plan now, while wilderness bill talks are in the early stages. "This master plan amendment is not really holding up the end of the deal we thought we had worked on with Snowbird," he said.
Jeff Niermeyer, Salt Lake City's director of public utilities, said he was pleased that most new activity is proposed for outside of the Salt Lake Valley's prime watershed. But he pledged to watch the proposal closely to ensure water quality is not affected.
Longtime backcountry skier Bob Athey said the main reason he doesn't ski Mary Ellen Gulch is that access was cut off by Snowbird's development of Mineral Basin. "Snowbird has no purpose and no need," he said. "Ask Bob Bonar, 'When is enough enough?' "
What is Snowbird's 10-year master plan?
Boundary expansion in Mary Ellen Gulch and Mineral Basin
A tram from Hidden Peak to the West Twin of American Fork Twin Peaks
A new chairlift in Mary Ellen Gulch, extension of the Mineral Basin Lift
Development of a beginner skier area, with a lift, below resort's lower entry
Creation of more mountain biking trails
Installation of night skiing along Gadzoom Lift
Making Gad II a high-speed detachable lift
Renovations to the Mid-Gad and Gad Valley day lodges, General Gritts store
Expansion of lift maintenance, disabled skiing offices
Addition of yurt to Baby Thunder area
Source • Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort