‘It won’t be wild America anymore’: Protesters decry proposed gondola at Little Cottonwood Canyon

Many attendees believe both solutions proposed by the Utah Department of Transportation would infringe upon the canyon’s beauty.

(Jordan Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protestors hold up "No Gondola" signs at a protest at the Little Cottonwood Canyon Park and Ride on Saturday, September 25, 2021.

Patches of orange and gold leaves dotted the cliffs above Little Cottonwood Canyon while vehicles honked their support on Saturday as residents and politicians protested the Utah Department of Transportation’s (UDOT) proposed gondola.

A few dozen activists held up signs while the fall sun beamed onto the concrete at the Little Cottonwood Canyon Park and Ride on Saturday. Shouts of “No gondola!” filled the air while leaders and political hopefuls on microphones explained the detriments a gondola would cause to the natural landscape.

UDOT’s plan proposes either a gondola or widening the canyon road to alleviate traffic down the canyon, with both estimated to cost over $500 million — $592 million for the gondola and $510 million for enhanced bus service. However, some residents feel both options would harm the area, as the enhanced bus route involves widening State Route 210.

“The problem is really only 10 or so days a year — when we have big heavy-snow days, and there is traffic that gets backed up,” said Whitney Wilkinson, a Sandy resident with Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon. “The problem isn’t as big as the solution that we’re trying to build, and the gondola will create a problem rather than solve the existing one.

“For 10 days a year, we’re spending billions of dollars to get skiers up the canyon,” she continued, “when really there are so many other options to explore — whether that’s enhanced bus routes, whether it’s tolling [...] Let’s try the smaller solutions first before we jump to the most extreme and the most permanent solution.”

(Jordan Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) An anti-gondola banner displayed by protestors at the Little Cottonwood Canyon Park and Ride on Saturday, September 25, 2021.

Many protesters have lived in the area for decades and don’t want to see the canyon defaced with massive towers across eight miles for a gondola. Cottonwood Heights resident Bob Douglass said National Geographic showed the canyon as a definition of the “purple mountain majesties” talked about in the song “America the Beautiful.” That beauty needs to be protected, he said.

“This is their idea of the wild America, [but] with the giant gondola up here, it won’t be wild America anymore,” said Bob Douglass, a resident of Cottonwood Heights. “The truth is, this half-billion dollars of our money — your — money is going to go to some developers who want to build a ski village here in the mouth right where we stand and to two private enterprises up the hill. It’s just not worth destroying the canyon for that, and we could spend that half-billion dollars doing something that would benefit the entire valley.”

Fred Burton has lived at the mouth of the canyon for 35 years and served on the 2002 Olympic Committee decision-making team. He said that, during that time, the canyon was examined by experts and the Environmental Protection Agency, and it was determined that Little Cottonwood Canyon was “too fragile, too vulnerable to even think about putting [in] any kind of venue or any kind of activity.”

“Nothing has changed in this canyon in the last 20 years,” Burton said. “I do not know what this is about, unless it’s about money.”

Burton does not want to see the canyon turn into a tourist attraction that may harm the natural surroundings with thousands of visitors it can’t support.

He mentioned the boom in tourism that Zion National Park has received in recent months and said more visitors would cause even more development in the area. Meanwhile, the mountain goats that used to flourish along the cliffs are already a rarity due to current construction projects, Burton said.

Many protesters echoed the sentiment that resorts and skiing aren’t the destinations that should be prioritized when the canyon is the destination already.

Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Cottonwood Heights, said she wants to protect the raw beauty of the area. Bennion — along with eleven other Democratic representatives — signed a letter against the gondola and the widening of the roads, stating that “we’ve got to live with what we have” to protect the canyon.

“I hiked up the Pfeifferhorn this year here for my first time,” she said. “And on the way up that big hike, I took a picture early in the morning of this canyon with just that one little narrow road. And I don’t want that to change.

“I want this to stay being a wild place,” Bennion added. “That’s why we love it. And I don’t want us to ruin that because we want to get there faster.”