Utah ski resorts yanking proposed land swaps from Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area bill

Ski resorts in Utah’s Cottonwood canyons are pulling proposed land swaps from landmark conservation legislation for the Central Wasatch in a move that highlights the difficulty of trading public lands that hold huge commercial value.

Utah's famous ski destinations have long hoped to acquire public land at their base areas, which would facilitate development to better accommodate year-round visitation.

The problem is that the lands the resorts currently own on their steep mountainsides are worth so much less than the bottomlands they hope to get through trades.

Such swaps have been pitched as incentives for ski industry participation in public processes to put Utah’s ski country on a sustainable path in the face of rising recreational use of the mountains that serve as Salt Lake City’s water source and scenic backdrop.

But land valuations have not turned out to be what ski area managers had hoped.

“Based on what we learned from an initial appraisal, combined with new information from the Forest Service regarding what lands they would take, and, more importantly, would not take in a land exchange, it no longer seemed the land exchange, as originally envisioned in the Mountain Accord, was viable,” said Dave Fields, Snowbird’s president and general manager, referring to a 2015 agreement that embraced land swaps as part of broader conservation framework for the Cottonwoods.

Disparities in exchange values ranged from 100 to 1 to 200 to 1 in terms of base area value compared with high-elevation terrain, where the ski resorts hold old mining claims, according to a letter executives with all four resorts wrote to the Central Wasatch Commission. In other words, Solitude, Brighton, Snowbird and Alta would have to give up 100 to 200 acres they hold on steep rocky slopes for a single acre at their bases.

The Nov. 1 letter requested the commission pull proposed exchanges out of the legislation establishing the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area, which the commission is drafting to present to Congress.

In these proposed trades, the resorts’ high-elevation holdings would be incorporated into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. But doubts are growing that the Forest Service would even accept many of these impacted parcels, where historic mines extracted their mineral wealth and left the consequences for future generations to deal with.

“The time and energy that would otherwise be spent on this [land-exchange] portion of the bill [should] be focused on immediate and long-term transportation solutions like those that are underway for winter 2019-20,” the executives wrote, referencing new initiatives to reduce traffic in the canyons in the form of boosted bus service and new ride-sharing apps.

“We take seriously our stewardship of the private and public lands within our permitted area,” said Solitude President Kim Mayhew. “We are open to all kinds of different conversations with our partners that will support minimizing the impact on the delicate environment of Big Cottonwood Canyon.”

The Central Wasatch’s smallest resort, Solitude is heading into its upcoming ski season, which opens Friday, with the biggest or at least boldest plan to reduce traffic. It will charge skiers to park, imposing a $20 fee on solo drivers. Cars with more occupants pay less and season pass holders can ride Utah Transit Authority ski buses for free.

[Read more: UTA expands ski bus service, gets praise from resorts and environmentalists]

Cottonwood resorts still would like to get title to the lands around their bases, but how that could happen remains difficult to predict, given the risk-averse approach taken by federal land managers, according to Central Wasatch Commission Executive Director Ralph Becker.

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) A general view from Alta Ski Resort, April 19, 2018. Ski resorts in Utah's Cottonwood Canyons are pulling proposed land swaps from landmark conservation legislation for the Central Wasatch. They have long hoped to trade public land at their bases for private holdings on high rocky slopes, like those pictured here under Mount Superior opposite Little Cottonwood Canyon from Snowbird and Alta. The ski areas' old mining claims hold very little value compared with the lands they seek to acquire, creating complications that threatened to drag down a bill establishing the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area.

The commission-drafted legislation would establish an 80,000-acre conservation area spanning the Mill Creek and Cottonwood canyons, covering some of the nation’s most heavily used national forest.

“That has to happen. If it doesn’t, we put future generations at risk on a variety of levels,” said Sandy Councilman Chris McCandless, who heads the commission’s board. “That would be tragic.”

McCandless hopes the proposal, now dragging into its fifth year, will still move forward without the land swaps, which had already proved controversial.

The swaps were panned by some critics as a “land grab,” enabling ski resorts to further develop at the expense of smaller property owners and the environment.

To the dismay of backcountry skiers, Alta previously withdrew its holdings in Grizzly Gulch, treasured undeveloped terrain that many people use to access premier touring terrain, from any future swap. The historic ski area wants to keep this land to allow it to expand its lift-served terrain and possibly connect with Solitude via Twin Lakes Pass.

The failure of the land swaps to take hold illustrates the inherent difficulty of trading ground ripe and ready for development with rocky slopes, especially when they are perforated with mine shafts and tailing piles. Complicating the picture is the haphazard property lines associated with abandoned 140-year-old mining claims the ski areas picked up at fire-sale prices decades ago. It can be difficult to know who owns what on the slopes at the heads of Little and Big Cottonwood canyons, where parcels resemble, as one observer put it, a game of “pickup sticks” scattered across the range.

Historic mines once churned out millions of tons of silver ore that helped build Salt Lake City, but they left a toxic legacy in the form of tailing piles that leach heavy metals into the landscape. The Forest Service has little appetite for assuming the environmental liabilities associated with these sites.

Even so, Snowbird, which owns more mine shafts than ski lifts, still hopes to reach agreements to preserve the scenic canyon it has operated in since 1971.

“We’re open to exploring any options, whatever that might be. It may not be a land exchange. Maybe it’s something else. We know that the community really values these lands from Mount Superior all the way up the north side of Little Cottonwood Canyon,” Fields said. “We’re open to exploring ways to protect the land and access to it.”