Salt Lake County mayoral hopefuls at odds over ski links

Politics • Republicans generally like the ideas, Dems are more critical, but all six add caveats.
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One hot-button issue Salt Lake County's next mayor seems certain to inherit involves the growth of the ski industry.

It's a divisive topic being duked out at the federal, state and local levels.

Congress is considering a bill aimed at establishing a so-called SkiLink between resorts in Salt Lake County (Solitude) and Summit County (Canyons), while the Legislature is weighing a resolution supporting a system interconnecting all four Salt Lake resorts with the three in Summit County.

The county itself is reworking its Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone (FCOZ) ordinance governing the types of activities, summer and winter, that resorts may develop.

In general, the four GOP candidates for mayor are more supportive of these efforts advancing ski industry commercial interests than the two Democrats looking to succeed Mayor Peter Corroon.

But all added caveats to their positions. The Democrats acknowledged the value of being good partners to a ski industry vital to the county's economy while the Republicans said new developments must be environmentally sensitive.

Of the GOP hopefuls:

Mark Crockett • The businessman and former county councilman said he is "in the middle" on the interconnect issue.

"Ski tourism is important to our community. I'd like to see Utah become an even bigger stop for people, and we probably need to make continuing improvements for that to happen," he said. "But we love our canyons, and we'd love for them to be pristine. … We need to be careful stewards."

In SkiLink, Crockett sees a proposal that "would make for one of the most amazing combined ski areas in the country, probably on par with some places in Europe." But he does not like federal legislation to advance the plan. "I've never been a big fan of using the federal government to resolve what we might do at home."

Gary Ott • The county recorder said he does not oppose an interconnect but doubts it would be as beneficial as promoters claim.

"The [ski] industry brings a lot of money to the state, so I'm not going to say I'm against it. But my gut feeling is that it wouldn't be the wonderful thing people think it would be," he said. "It's not worth what it's going to cost to do it. People don't want to ride ski lifts back and forth. You can already wear yourself out in one day at one resort."

Ott objected to federal legislation requiring the U.S. Forest Service to sell land to a private developer, adding, "It should be really, really difficult for the Forest Service to sell its lands." He favors detailed studies to protect the environment, noting: "What we have here is very precious. Let's treat it like that."

Richard Snelgrove • A county councilman and travel agency owner, Snelgrove believes SkiLink and an interconnect system can reduce traffic congestion and air pollution in the Cottonwood canyons.

But their biggest benefits would come from creating "a more marketable ski product as Utah competes with Colorado," he said. "Tourism is Utah's largest industry, and the ski industry is the crown jewel of that. We need to be competitive with Colorado."

Snelgrove has no problems with federal legislation advancing SkiLink — "it may be a bit out of the ordinary, but it's not an illegal approach" — and said changes to the status quo should not limit backcountry skiers' right to access public lands. But, he added, it's important to help resorts cater to the desires of customers "who are voting [for Utah] with their pocketbooks."

Mike Winder • West Valley City's mayor is a fan of SkiLink and a broader interconnect system.

"What I see of SkiLink, I like," he said. "It's a terrific opportunity to connect Canyons Resort with Big Cottonwood Canyon and ultimately, I hope, to Little Cottonwood — and to have something unique in North America."

Winder has no problem with using federal legislation to push SkiLink, contending the plan still must pass environmental muster and receive local government input.

"Economic development and increasing tourism in the Salt Lake area is a top priority of mine. I fully support the exciting efforts to connect our ski resorts," he added. "I am confident we can do this in an environmentally responsible way, and that it will be a game changer for Utah as a winter destination."

On the Democrats' side:

Ben McAdams • The state senator opposes the SkiLink legislation because it "violates our cooperative and protective watershed management approach for the Wasatch [Mountains]. … The outcome shouldn't drive the process."

It is imperative for the county to address traffic-congestion problems in the canyons, he said. Examining an interconnect system as a possible contributor to a transportation problem "is a discussion worth having."

But it is just one potential solution, he added, not unlike rail lines or expanded bus service, that could be implemented after careful deliberation.

"The role of the county mayor," McAdams said, "is to ensure a fair public process is followed and that rules are set up that all parties agree to."

Ross Romero • Also a state senator, Romero is bothered by the use of federal legislation to promote SkiLink without first getting local input, especially since he doubts it "really is a transportation solution."

But Romero is sympathetic to the interests of the state's skiing and tourism industries and can see how an interconnect system, if done in an environmentally responsible manner, could increase the appeal of Utah resorts to destination and local skiers.

"I'm not sure I'm in favor of connecting all seven resorts but maybe some that are right next to each other," Romero added, emphasizing he does not favor expanding the resorts' boundaries.

"Helping the economy of Salt Lake County is ultimately what I'm most concerned about," he said. "Tourism dollars are very good dollars to have in the economy." Twitter: @sltribmikeg —

What are Salt Lake's ski issues?

SkiLink is Talisker Mountain Corp.'s proposal, a gondola linking its Canyons Resort to Solitude Mountain Resort, a process kicked off with federal legislation that removes the U.S. Forest Service from the picture by requiring it to sell the Canadian company 30 acres in the contemplated gondola corridor.

Interconnect is a resolution by state Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, encouraging studies to find a "responsible" way to establish links between the seven ski resorts in Salt Lake and Summit counties.

FCOZ is Salt Lake County's "Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone" and is being reviewed to take into account that mountain resorts have summer as well as winter activities.