In light of Ski Utah’s recent "OneWasatch" proposal to connect all seven ski resorts in the Central Wasatch with new ski lifts, allow me to provide a different perspective from those of us who enjoy accessing Utah’s world-renowned snow and terrain under our own power and who come to the Wasatch seeking a true backcountry experience.
I am a founding member of a new grassroots organization called Wasatch Backcountry Alliance that is focused on advocating for the backcountry community involved in human-powered winter recreation in the Central Wasatch Mountains. Since forming last fall we already have more than 1,000 members.
As skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and winter recreationists, the members of Wasatch Backcountry Alliance appreciate and support Utah’s world-class ski resort industry. We recognize the significant contribution to the economy and quality of life that skiing and winter recreation provide for residents and visitors along both sides of the Wasatch.
Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and our members believe the current balance between opportunities for developed (resort) and undeveloped (backcountry) skiing is a crucial component of Utah’s attraction as a winter recreation mecca and that this balance must be protected. Further resort expansion will forever alter this critical balance.
Given the significant growth in backcountry skiing and snowshoeing in the face of declining or flat resort skiing numbers, it is evident that backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, winter mountaineering and other forms of human-powered winter recreation are increasingly important contributors to Utah’s economy and quality of life. Indeed, the future of Utah’s recreation and tourist economy may very well lie more in what is protected than in what is developed.
With respect to future ski resort expansion on public lands, including the OneWasatch proposal, Wasatch Backcountry Alliance supports the direction provided in the Wasatch-Cache Forest Plan. After careful analysis of environmental, economic and social impacts of potential resort expansion, the Wasatch-Cache Forest Plan determined that, "New resort developments on National Forest System lands will be confined to the permit boundaries in effect at the time of revision ." And that, for all resort development decisions, "Special attention will be given to the scenic integrity of views from backcountry and wilderness trails," and "visual integrity of ridgelines will be maintained."
It is also noteworthy that public opinion overwhelmingly supports this approach to maintaining the current balance. In the 2010 Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow report sponsored by the state of Utah, Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City, 94 percent of survey respondents supported limiting resort expansion in a way that would not infringe on existing winter backcountry ski areas and have little or no effect on environmental resources.
Outdoor-oriented businesses whose livelihoods depend on both backcountry recreation and resort skiing have weighed in with similar support. Recently 190 outdoor business CEOs and attendees to the semi-annual Outdoor Retailer Market held in Salt Lake City wrote a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert calling upon the governor and other decision makers to "lead the way in ensuring the critical balance between resort and backcountry winter recreation opportunities is preserved."
The Wasatch Mountains hold value far beyond their unrivaled recreational amenities, terrain and powder snow. These mountains are an ecological and scenic treasure, the source of the water we drink, a place to find solitude and respite from the noise and stress of city life and to experience wild open spaces and wilderness on their own terms. Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and our members join outdoor industry leaders and Utah citizens in urging our elected officials and decision makers to be vigilant and wise in preserving this irreplaceable resource not just for today but for future generations.
Jamie Kent is a lifelong Wasatch skier and snowboarder and the president of the newly formed Wasatch Backcountry Alliance.
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