Activists float balloons in Little Cottonwood Canyon, to show what a gondola would do to the view

Groups oppose both the gondola and a widening of the road.

The balloons were round, but the environmental activists who flew them over Little Cottonwood Canyon hoped they made a point about what a proposed gondola would do to the view.

About a dozen activists and volunteers gathered Saturday morning at the park-and-ride lot at the base of the canyon. They filled four spherical balloons, about three feet in diameter, with helium from a tank that environmental lawyer Pat Shea rented and carried in the back of his SUV.

“These balloons came from BYU,” joked Shea, commenting on the balloons’ Ute-red color.

The volunteers then tied the balloons to spools of twine, then unrolled the twine and let two of the balloons float upward. The twine had been measured out to 236 feet — the height, they said, of one of the 20 towers proposed to carry a people-moving gondola that would stretch from La Caille up to the Alta and Snowbird ski resorts.

The gondola is one of two proposals the Utah Department of Transportation is considering to help improve traffic flow in the canyon — which not only is home to two of Utah’s most popular ski areas but is a year-round destination for hikers, cyclists and other recreation enthusiasts.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Environmental activist Dani Poirier gets ready to fly a large balloons over the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, to demonstrate the height of gondola towers the Utah Department of Transportation is proposing be built to carry people up to Alta and Snowbird ski resorts.

The second proposal calls for an enhanced shuttle-bus service through the canyon, and widening State Road 210 to accommodate the extra bus traffic.

Either proposal would cost at least $500 million to build, and would represent a major expansion of infrastructure within the scenic, narrow canyon.

In past weeks, operators of several of the ski resorts have come out in favor of the gondola plan, while Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said she prefers the expanded bus service.

Building 20 towers to carry a gondola would “completely change the character of this canyon,” said Alex Schmidt, campaigns coordinator for Save Our Canyons, who organized Saturday’s balloon demonstration.

Schmidt said his group is “dedicated to protecting the beauty and wildness of the Wasatch.” The two UDOT proposals, he said, “are not helpful or going to achieve that outcome for our communities, and for the wildlife and the ecosystem in these important canyons.”

Either proposal, he said, would “add 3,000 or so parking stalls at the mouth of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, in these communities, just for people to transition to take a bus, and then transition onto a gondola.”

After testing their balloon skills at the park-and-ride, some of the volunteers took two more balloons about five miles to the trailhead of the White Pine Trail, one of the more popular backcountry routes in the canyon.

The trailhead would become “flyover country” for a gondola — which is another concern Schmidt’s group has with the proposal.

“It’s really only servicing two resorts and their patrons,” Schmidt said. Alta and Snowbird are “important for our economy, and for use. But it does not do anything for year-round, dispersed and developed transportation access. … How is this a benefit for all the public land owners in this canyon?”

Shea — who was director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management during part of the Clinton administration — points to White Pine’s popularity as an argument against the gondola and for expanded bus service.

“If you’re going to go up to White Pine, the bus will stop there, and you can go hike,” Shea said. “With the gondola, you go all the way to Snowbird or to Alta, and you have to walk back to where you want to be.”

Expanding the bus service, though, shouldn’t come with widening the road, Shea said. Most of the road is three lanes, Shea said, and UDOT could accommodate a dedicated bus lane by repainting the lane stripes. In the parts of the road that are only two lanes, Shea suggested a gate system that temporarily would stop two-way car traffic to allow buses to go through.

Shea is a co-founder of Friends of Alta, which advocates for maintaining open space in a canyon that provides 30% of Salt Lake City’s water. Since the group’s founding in 1980, Shea said, they have been involved in at least six lawsuits, all successful, mostly against developers “who wanted to make Alta like Park City.”

The balloon demonstration at White Pine hit some snags the volunteers didn’t encounter at the park-and-ride. One of the balloons popped as the volunteers were getting it out of the car. They tied the other to a 180-foot length of twine — about the height of a gondola tower at this point on the route.

That balloon rose quickly, as rain started to fall. Then the wind picked up, pulling the balloon horizontally along the parking lot until it got caught in a stand of aspen, where it popped. One of the volunteers quickly reeled in the twine, and walked over to pick up shards of red latex.

Schmidt argued that neither the gondola nor a widened road and bus service will bring about UDOT’s goal to reduce traffic by 30% in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“We know if you add a lane, and it’s instantly full,” Schmidt said. “You build a gondola, and people are going to be stuck in traffic at the mouth of the canyon.”