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SkiLink is not the answer

Published January 19, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As a former president of the Utah Ski Association and its marketing company, Ski Utah, my allegiance to Utah skiing and to the Wasatch Mountains runs deep. That allegiance compels me to write in firm opposition to a legislative proposal to force the sale of public lands to a Canadian development company in order to facilitate a gondola known as SkiLink.

The proposal, pushed by members of Utah's congressional delegation at the behest of Talisker Corp., was introduced in the 2012 session of Congress as the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act. The bill would force the U.S. Forest Service to sell 30 acres of land on the Wasatch National Forest — land owned by all of us — to Talisker in order to build a gondola between Talisker-owned Canyons Ski Resort near Park City and Solitude Mountain Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Thirty acres may not sound like a lot, but this particular 30 acres bisects pristine national forest land currently proposed as wilderness and including popular hiking and biking trails and well-loved backcountry ski terrain. Incidentally, the Forest Service understands the public value of this land and testified against the SkiLink bill when it was introduced.

As a Utah native and lifelong skier I am an unabashed cheerleader for Utah skiing. I tell anyone who will listen about Utah's world-class resorts and "Greatest Snow on Earth." I also tell them about the unrivaled terrain that has made the Wasatch a world-renowned mecca for backcountry skiing, mountain biking, climbing and hiking.

It's the balance between developed and undeveloped recreation opportunities that make the Wasatch so unique. That balance is a primary reason the Outdoor Retailers, which pours more than $30 million each year into Utah's economy, chooses Salt Lake for its semiannual trade show and why many of the companies who attend the show have moved their businesses here.

SkiLink would forever alter that balance.

Led by Utah-based Black Diamond Equipment Co., 85 outdoor companies whose livelihoods are directly tied to Utah's recreation economy recently published a letter opposing SkiLink and asserting that, contrary to backers' claims, SkiLink would be a significant detriment to the greater ski community and would negatively impact Utah tourism and the outdoor businesses that contribute to the state's outdoor recreation economy.

Published industry reports on trends in snowsports support this assertion.

According to a 2011 Snowsports Industries of America report, human-powered snow sports are the fastest growing segment of winter recreation. This segment includes backcountry skiing, alpine touring, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Another SIA report on equipment sales states that alpine touring equipment sales in 2009-10 increased by 57 percent over the previous year. Interestingly, more than a third of all resort skiers now utilize equipment that does not require a ski lift.

Talisker marketeers tout SkiLink as a solution to the ever-increasing traffic volume and congestion to and between the Wasatch Front ski areas. This "solution" requires the purchase of a $96 lift ticket and spending an hour or more on four separate ski lifts just to reach the proposed gondola. That's after driving to the Canyons and before embarking on the gondola ride to Solitude.

Clearly, the Wasatch needs transportation solutions but SkiLink is not the answer.

If Utah's congressmen and senators truly want to serve their constituents they will abandon this backroom proposal benefiting a single international corporation and cutting the public — the owners of the land in question — out of the process, and will instead apply their considerable influence toward a comprehensive, area-wide planning effort that addresses transportation, watershed, land use and recreation on both sides of the Wasatch Range.

Mark Menlove is a fifth-generation Utahn who spent 18 years working in the state's ski industry, five as president of the Utah Ski Association and its marketing company, Ski Utah. He is executive director of Winter Wildlands Alliance.