Feds approve master plan for Utah’s Alta Ski Resort calling for controversial upgrades

( Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Powder skiing at Alta Ski Resort. Federal authorities have given initial approval to a master plan for the resort outside Salt Lake City that calls for tram additions and other improvements, many of them opposed by environmental groups.

A small tram, capable of moving 150 skiers an hour to the top of one of the Central Wasatch’s highest peaks, could be in store for Alta Ski Area under a master plan approved this week by the U.S. Forest Service.

Environmentalists are concerned the tram, proposed to connect Germania Pass with the summit of Mount Baldy, and other parts of the plan could pave the way for further mountaintop development at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and possibly degrade sensitive wetlands.

“They are doubling down on the destruction of wetlands in our watersheds,” said Carl Fisher, executive director of the environmental group Save Our Canyons. Fisher has been a leading critic of upgrades proposed in the master plan, unveiled five years ago for one of the nation’s oldest and most storied ski areas, among the last to embrace high-speed lifts.

The federal decision posted Tuesday, however, concludes Alta’s master development plan poses “no significant impact,” opening a 45-day comment period before it wins final approval.

Save Our Canyons intends to file an objection.

“We don’t agree with this decision at all,” said Fisher, who was already displeased with wetland disturbance resulting from the resort’s recently re-aligned and consolidated Supreme and Cecret lifts.

Alta spokeswoman Connie Marshall did not immediately return a phone message left Thursday.

The plan does not seek to expand the resort, which operates on 1,800 acres of public land administered by the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest outside Salt Lake City. But it does envision replacing two lower mountain lifts, Wildcat and Sunnyside; expansions to two restaurants; and installation of new technologies to replace military artillery and Avalaunchers, which fire explosive projectiles to trigger controlled slides.

Aside from the tram, another controversial element is the proposed Flora Lift, a short-run conveyance in Sugarbowl at the top of Albion Basin. That lift would enable skiers to access Germania Pass and Collins Bowl without having to navigate the East Baldy Traverse. But the lift’s towers and lower terminal above Glory Hole would encroach on wetlands vital to ecosystem health and water quality, according to Fisher.

However, the draft decision, signed by forest Supervisor David Whittekiend, requires Alta to “avoid” locating lift components in wetlands when “practical.”

“Disturbances will be mitigated when avoidance is not practical,” the decision states.

The Alta master plan’s new and replacement lifts are not meant to increase skier capacity, although the Sunnyside and Wildcat replacements would be able to carry more skiers.

“The Mt. Baldy tram would have a very low capacity and would serve primarily to transport ski patrol personnel. Public use would involve primarily those expert skiers who currently hike Mt. Baldy,” Whittekiend’s decision says.

“The upgrades are to replace old, less reliable lift systems, provide redundant capacity when other lifts are down, and meet the current skier market’s desire for high-speed lifts,” the decision says.

Alta Mayor Harris Sondak said he was hopeful the tram alignment, which features no towers, would minimize its visual impact by keeping towers below the ridgeline, but he acknowledged it would be controversial.

“As someone who is able to hike Baldy on a sunny day, I wonder how much this will change the skier experience,” said Sondak, a University of Utah business professor. “Some of our residents and visitors will be unhappy and others will the pleased with these changes.”

He said the town has a strong interest in conserving and protecting the canyon’s natural resources and scenery, but it remains sympathetic to the ski area’s desire to accommodate people flocking to Little Cottonwood Canyon and evolving expectations about skiing.

The Flora Lift is drawing the most pushback because many Alta regulars do not to see a pressing need for it.

Crossing an avalanche pass, the East Baldy Traverse, or EBT, occasionally closes while awaiting avalanche-control work, thereby cutting off skier access between the ski area’s two major basins. And high winds can make the traverse unpleasant.

The Flora lift would allow skiers to avoid the EBT to reach Germania Pass from Sugarloaf.

“Honestly, skiers are soft these days,” Fisher said. “People don’t like to go into the mountains and be subjected to the elements. They need heated chairs and gondolas instead of traverses. That’s literally why they are doing it.”

Alta’s plan seeks to install technologies that enable patrollers to trigger avalanches remotely, offsetting the need to hike through dangerous terrain to deliver charges by hand. Potential locations for this new hardware, which deliver percussive bursts into avalanche starting zones, are on Devil’s Castle, the jagged ridge forming the head of the Albion cirque where skiers hike from the tops of the Sugarloaf and Supreme lifts.

“We question if it’s necessary to pockmark Devil’s Castle, which is a back drop to Alta,” Fisher said.