This summer, members of Ski Utah, a marketing firm owned and operated by the 14 statewide ski resorts, will travel the United States touting the state’s greatest snow on earth and their preliminary plans for One Wasatch. Their goal, in its most simplistic form, is to increase skier visits to their resorts and challenge competing states such as Colorado, Vermont, Washington, etc.
Their holy grail, aside from the legendary Utah powder, has been an interconnect among the central Wasatch resorts, something One Wasatch hopes to provide. But who is One Wasatch for? And at what cost financially and environmentally to our precious wilderness, scenic vistas, and backcountry terrain? Simply to allow marketing professionals to tout a Utah ski-interconnect?
The layers of these developments are thick. Environmental and legal issues differentiating between public and private land, watershed concerns, backcountry access, disruption of the natural landscape, transportation issues, and frankly a disconnect between Ski Utah and its local recreational visitors all plague the issue.
Let’s do the numbers. According to recent Ski Utah studies, only 5 percent of the Utah population actually skis, so we know Ski Utah’s intentions are not for locals. With regards to national data, SnowSports Industries of America and Leisure Trends RetailTRAK have found that skiers are increasingly looking towards the backcountry with their purchases. Alpine Touring/Randonee equipment sales increased 8 percent in dollars sold, and sales of Alpine/AT boots are up 21 percent in dollars. Also, the Wasatch Tomorrow study, 2010, showed that over half of the respondents wanted to limit land development. It seems skiers may not be interested in sitting on an interconnecting chairlift and furthermore, why does Ski Utah want to diminish backcountry terrain?
The goal for One Wasatch is to interconnect seven resorts (Alta, Snowbird, Brighton, Solitude, Park City, Canyons, and Deer Valley) with a few lifts, offering one lift pass to ski between all seven. And apparently all of this will be accomplished by erecting lifts on private land. While this is possible, the details of where these lift towers would actually be and the trail construction are not easily elucidated. Furthermore, One Wasatch has not yet drafted an environmental impact statement regarding the development and its impact on backcountry access. If developed, connecting Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons will diminish access to popular backcountry areas, including large tracts of USFS and surely provide disruptions to the natural landscape.
According to the Forest Plan for the Wasatch-Cache National Forest "crowding and physical impacts from visitor use should not be allowed to reach the point where solitude is destroyed or evidence of humans dominates." In the case of all proposed interconnect zones, pristine areas will be lost. The plan further states "pristine areas, which are precious areas that approach the ideal of being untrammeled by man, are protected to maintain their undisturbed and undeveloped character and prevent degradation of their unique and valuable wilderness values." The eyesore of lift towers, work roads, chairs, or even seeing them while traveling in backcountry zones would put a damper on the current pristine experience. Adding additional lift towers and cables to an already compact range would disrupt our mountain vistas as well as stress wildlife as they alter their travel corridors due to new lifts and work roads.
While development is proposed to only exist on private land, the notion that public lands would remain undisturbed is a fantasy. As these proposed developments become real disputes within the local government, and The Mountain Accord— a multi-phase initiative that seeks to make critical decisions regarding the future of the central Wasatch Mountains, it will take a strong consensus among skiers and citizen action to oppose this development.
Regardless, One Wasatch isn’t a conceptual plan for the skiers of Utah. It’s for marketing, Looking to increase skier visits, One Wasatch is a short-term goal for Ski Utah to live in the spotlight for a few years. If approved what will happen when this marketing stunt runs it course, who knows? The Wasatch range has only a few wild parcels of land remaining, an interconnect will further shrink that feature. Hopefully skiers can mobilize and take action to protect the nature, beauty, and powder existing in our small Wasatch Range.
Erme Catino is a skier/journalist based in Salt Lake City.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.