Solitude Mountain Resort is asking the U.S. Forest Service to let it expand into Silver Fork basin, a proposal that immediately sparked objections from influential Salt Lake City water officials and backcountry skiers.
Resort owner David DeSeelhorst submitted a request last month to amend the Big Cottonwood Canyon resort's special-use permit, contending the move into Silver Fork would allow Solitude to cater better to the future recreational needs of a fast-growing Wasatch Front population.
DeSeelhorst also said it would allow Solitude to compete with local resorts that already have the kind of steep, high-elevation terrain Silver Fork offers.
Acknowledging the importance of protecting water quality, DeSeelhorst said in his nine-page letter that Alpine skiing can be developed without impairing the purity of water coming from the Silver Fork drainage.
Not so certain is Jeff Niermeyer, director of the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, which is responsible for protecting the city's mountain water supplies and has succeeded in turning back other development proposals in the canyons.
"The expansion of a ski resort is an incremental degradation of the watershed and watershed protection," he said, calling Silver Fork a "major" subdrainage of Big Cottonwood Creek, which supplies 24 percent of the city's water.
"If the Forest Service accepts this proposal, we would insist it needs to go under the detailed review of NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] to understand the impacts," Niermeyer added.
The Forest Service's Salt Lake ranger district is not obligated to accept the application because the existing special-use permit has not expired.
District Ranger Cathy Kahlow said her office is about to review the proposal internally while consulting with other interested parties, such as the city water department.
She expects the agency to respond in January, either rejecting the proposal and explaining why or initiating a process to determine what level of analysis is needed, up to a full-blown environmental impact statement that would take several years.
"It probably would be an EIS because of the sensitivity of that area," Kahlow said.
DeSeelhorst's letter said the proposed expansion was driven by efforts of public utilities officials, the conservation group Save Our Canyons and others to increase designated wilderness areas in the central Wasatch to protect water supplies.
More wilderness would limit Solitude's ability to "respond to customer demands in an evolving and competitive ski industry," he said. "For quite some time we have viewed Silver Fork Canyon ... as capable of providing exceptional lift-served skiing and riding."
But Save Our Canyons executive Carl Fisher said "people have recognized there is a need to protect the municipal watershed. Wilderness is one of the best ways to do that."
Will McCarvill, a Wasatch Mountain Club official who skis and hikes year-round in Silver Fork, is appalled that Solitude "is asking for all of Silver Fork, ridge to ridge. The Meadows chutes and the upper bowl are heavily used by backcountry skiers and snowshoers. ... It's a beautiful place, out of sight and sound of the mechanized world, in winter and summer."
He also is irritated that the ski industry is participating in Envision Utah's meetings to assess the future of the central Wasatch, but at the same time, Alta and Solitude are looking at expansions that would greatly advance interconnections among the four Cottonwood Canyon resorts. Alta is investigating putting a lift up Flagstaff Mountain, off Silver Fork's back side.
"I recognize ski areas are important economically. They provide recreation. But they just want it all," McCarvill said. "The Wasatch Mountain Club has recreated in these mountains for 90 years. I see this as driving us out of the mountains in the winter."
DeSeelhorst said there is nothing insidious in the proposal and that "in our 20 recent years of residential development and ski operation, we have proved we can live well and work well within the watershed. We have been a good steward of that area."
To add 741 acres in Silver Fork basin (including 462 acres of public land) to the resort's existing 1,418 acres
That would provide easy access to a glacial bowl at 9,500 feet, good for intermediates and advanced skiers and boarders, and to the 50 degree-to-60 degree slopes of Meadow Chutes, ideal for experts
Justification: Utah skier visits grew 37 percent in the past decade, Wasatch Front population growth is projected to grow 65 percent in the next 20 years, increasing the need for recreational opportunities in the mountains.