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Op-ed: ‘One Wasatch’ ski connection favors resorts over the rest of us

First Published      Last Updated Oct 03 2014 02:41 pm

Last week Ski Utah reminded the greater Wasatch Mountains community that they are serious about the local ski resorts expanding their existing boundaries with their audacious "One Wasatch" program to link all seven resorts by adding chairlifts. The One Wasatch is actually the infamous Ski Link resurrected on steroids!

Ski Utah's goal is to lure vacationing skiers away from Colorado by creating an interconnected system of chairlifts that will create a marketing image of Utah as a European-style, buffet-skiing experience. It seems so simple, yet there are several major problems with the concept.

One problem is that there is little benefit to local residents. Most locals have a favorite resort, and traveling between the resorts will be just that: traveling, without experiencing high-quality skiing. And One Wasatch is not a transportation enhancement; the proposed lifts would run from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. from December to April and would require a $100+ lift ticket. This is not a viable public transportation solution. And any additional jobs that would result after construction would be notoriously low paid, no-benefit, seasonal service jobs.

Additionally, there is a disturbing lack of confidence that this experimental plan would even work. Ski Utah admits that they do not know if connecting the resorts will actually lure more tourists; linking Whistler and Blackcomb, Snowbird and Alta, and Solitude and Brighton have not increased those resorts' skier days.

The ski industry as a whole has remained flat nationally for the last 10 years. A study commissioned by Ski Utah found that baby boomers are fading away from the sport; so too are 30 and 40 year olds, and snowboarding is on a steady decline. The only notable growth in the ski industry is human-powered backcountry skiing/snowboarding/hiking equipment that consistently enjoys double-digit growth. This is part of what keeps the $20M Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake and enabled local employers such as Black Diamond Equipment, Backcountry.com, and Voile Equipment to thrive throughout the recession.

Of acute concern to local backcountry enthusiasts is the irretrievable loss of valuable backcountry terrain associated with resort expansion. Thousands of people – locals and visitors alike – use the Wasatch mountains daily for human powered recreation throughout the winter, and much that happens in the area that will be directly affected by the One Wasatch interconnect. The number of people who choose to live, work, raise families, and pay taxes in Utah due to the easy access to our world famous wild lands is substantial and growing rapidly. Most of what little snowmobile terrain that remains in the central Wasatch will also likely be lost.

And despite the confident assurance by Ski Utah that the resort expansion would be sensitive to the watersheds, the EPA found in a Colorado study that ski resort development results in more watershed damage than all other forest management activities combined.

Which leads to the logical question: do we want to risk permanent watershed and viewshed damage to help the ski resorts experiment with possibly squeezing more profit from a declining sport? The resorts already control most of the high quality winter recreation terrain in the Wasatch; does it really benefit all of us to hand over vital portions of what remains for a speculative endeavor? There are other ways for the resorts to continue to thrive.

The Wasatch Mountains provide a unique and precious contribution to the quality of life in Utah. Indeed, Ski Utah is right about "one" Wasatch: there's only one small area, and a true "One Wasatch" plan would maintain the balance of this limited resource for all user groups, not just one.

Tom Diegel is a member of the board of directors of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance.