Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola plan prompts yet another lawsuit — the 3rd in a week

Save Our Canyons is the latest to sue the Utah Department of Transportation, citing the gondola plan.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Environmental activists Jack Strauss and Jennifer Weiler fly large balloons over the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, to demonstrate the height of the gondola towers the Utah Department of Transportation plans to build. Save Our Canyons, a nonprofit that works to protect the Wasatch Mountains, sued the Utah Department of Transportation on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023, citing the gondola plan.

A new lawsuit was filed Monday against the Utah Department of Transportation over environmental concerns in Little Cottonwood Canyon — the third such complaint filed in a week that cites the 8-mile gondola planned for the picturesque slice of Utah’s alpine.

Filed by local nonprofit Save Our Canyons, which works to protect the Wasatch Mountains, the latest lawsuit alleges defendants UDOT and the U.S. Forest Service violated two federal processes ahead of UDOT’s July decision to authorize the gondola.

The lawsuit states UDOT only considered car-dependent alternatives in its environmental analysis ahead of the project’s approval and argues the agency did not adequately consider congestion impacts from the gondola and other developments.

Save Our Canyons also alleges in the complaint that the Forest Service didn’t adequately consider impacts to two nearby wilderness areas — Twin Peaks Wilderness and Lone Peak Wilderness — during the environmental analysis, thus failing to preserve them.

[Read more: A timeline of the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola]

Save Our Canyons aims to show that UDOT and the Forest Service violated federal policy. If so, it wants the court to set aside UDOT’s record of decision and final Environmental Impact Statement, which UDOT used to select the gondola as its preferred transportation improvement option for Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The organization also wants the defendants to be prevented from taking further action until UDOT has “fully complied with federal law,” the complaint states.

The two other lawsuits recently filed against UDOT — one by environmental advocates, and another by Salt Lake City and Sandy — seek similar judgments, alleging that the state did not follow the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which outlines environmental considerations that require study when planning such large infrastructure projects.

Save Our Canyons also seeks relief for the cost of litigation in its suit, and further relief to be determined by the court.

“At every step UDOT smoothed the path for the La Caille gondola,” the filing states. “And at the end of this convoluted and arbitrary alternatives analysis, UDOT approved the La Caille gondola in a configuration almost identical to a gondola proposal that was screened out in the first stages of the project for reasons that equally apply to the La Caille gondola or, at minimum, have never been adequately explained.”

Also listed as defendants are UDOT’s executive director, Carlos Braceras, and the Forest Service’s chief, Randy Moore.

A spokesperson with the U.S. Forest Service said they could not comment on the pending litigation, but noted that it’s important to remember that the gondola is a UDOT proposal — and the U.S. Forest Service is a cooperating agency.

UDOT spokesperson John Gleason said the department is aware of the new legal challenges, but that officials have not yet reviewed the details of the litigation, so they could not comment on the specifics.

Gleason added that UDOT still hopes to complete Phase 1 of its plan — which includes expanding bus services and implementing tolling — by the start of the 2025-2026 ski season, but recent lawsuits could delay that timeline.

”At this time, we still do not know the full impact that any of the legal challenges will have on the implementation of improvements such as bus service and tolling,” Gleason said in a statement. We will continue to assess potential schedule impacts to Phase 1 as we work through the legal process.”

— Tribune staff writer Jacob Scholl contributed to this report.