Lawsuit aims to stop work on Little Cottonwood gondola, claims state cut corners in study

Environmental groups are seeking to block gondola construction and force UDOT to reexamine the gondola’s potential impact on the canyon.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Cottonwood Canyon on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023.

Environmental groups and outdoor enthusiasts are trying to prevent construction on the controversial gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon.

A new lawsuit filed Monday claims the Utah Department of Transportation cut corners during its study of the area and possible solutions for its long-standing transportation woes.

The lawsuit, filed in Salt Lake City’s federal court, alleges UDOT did not live up to federally outlined standards when the department issued its Record of Decision (ROD) that found an eight-mile-long gondola through the canyon would be the best way to alleviate the area’s transportation issues.

UDOT released the ROD in July, which ended a years-long saga of numerous public meetings and tens of thousands of public comments over what to do in Little Cottonwood.

Those who filed suit, including groups like Friends of Alta, are seeking to have the ROD and UDOT’s environmental study — known as a NEPA study, which stands for the National Environmental Policy Act — thrown out. The lawsuit also seeks to prevent UDOT from starting any construction relating to the gondola project until another NEPA study can be completed.

Much of the lawsuit is based on claims UDOT did not fully investigate the impact of the gondola’s construction and operation in Little Cottonwood. For example, the lawsuit claims UDOT did not properly analyze the impact a gondola would have on animals like golden eagles, which are federally protected birds.

Among other claims, the lawsuit says the proposed gondola through the canyon would, “affect the natural habitats of golden eagles and other fauna; contaminate and endanger a critical watershed; disrupt recreation areas unrelated to resort skiing such as climbing, hiking, and backcountry skiing; and permanently alter the breathtaking views of the canyon.”

On Tuesday, John Gleason, a UDOT spokesperson, said in a statement that the department is still reviewing the lawsuit. UDOT is in the process of implementing the first phase of its plan to improve transportation through Little Cottonwood, which involves expanded bus service and new tolling through the canyon. Phase 3 would be building and opening the gondola, though that is likely years, if not decades, away from starting.

Gleason added that Phase 1 of the project is supposed to be completed by the 2025-2026 ski season, but the lawsuit could cause a delay in that timeline.

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

Current gondola plans would call for 22 towers and three loading stations, one at the mouth of the canyon and stations at Alta and Snowbird resorts. The total price tag to construct the gondola is $728 million, according to estimates released in July.