Carl Fisher: Cottonwood Canyon gondola would be an expensive boondoggle

There are other things that Utah should spend its money on.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The ski slopes draws a steady stream to Big Cottonwood canyon during a recent weekend morning.

It doesn’t have to be either/or. Utahns could enjoy tax cuts, fund education and solve many other problems too.

Problem is, Utah’s governor and Legislature want to spend $500 million to $1 billion on a transportation system to benefit two private businesses: Snowbird and Alta. The governor has already proposed a $50 million down payment on a gondola, a gondola that will still have underneath it a road that is failing and jammed with cars because there is no valley transit increase to help our varying communities (only tourists) to these amazing canyons without paving them to park more cars.

This will necessitate building thousands, if not tens of thousand, parking stalls, more condos and restaurants and the general desecration of our peaks and creeks. They’ve yet to think about year-round transit improvements to Big Cottonwood Canyon, costing us all even more.

Meanwhile, crushing visitation is leaving land and water managers fighting over pennies, while the state can only think about what treasured Utah ecosystem will succumb to their next “Mighty 5” campaign, driving more revenues to their developer donors bookending our canyons.

GondolaWorks, SkiLink, OneWasatch, Lift Ogden. All are rebrands on a dangerous ploy, benefitting former politicians and financially well-off, exploiting the commons and the public trust, for private gain. Let’s call it what it is — the great gondola grift.

If we are so budgetarily bloated, I recommend here, a few priorities that should move ahead of this swindle du jour:

  • We still have underfunded schools robbing opportunity and futures for our youth.

  • We need criminal and social justice reforms.

  • We still have a housing crisis and homeless populations in need of support.

  • We have algal blooms destroying our precious lakes and rivers.

  • We have staggering wealth inequality in the midst of a global pandemic, unfathomable losses of life, livelihoods and dreams.

  • We have land and water managers who can’t keep pace with tourism and climate pressures.

  • We need better access to transit from our communities to canyons, cities and businesses. (Fund UTA not UDOT.)

We all suffer, while a ski industry, comprising less than 1% of the state GDP, is looking at a $500 million to $1 billion public subsidy to build contraptions to lure tourists and attract the next Olympics. Resort patrons will be swiftly delivered to lavish resorts, while working families with no or poor access to transit are stuck in traffic. If resorts charging $200 per day to ski need a bailout, cut them a check and spare carving our canyons, only increasing the burden on future generations from whom we’ve already taken too much.

Our local elected officials are entertaining funding these smarmy deals, converting climbing cracks into tracks, gardens of flowers into gondola towers. This, while their constituents consistently say they want “about the same (41%)” “less than already exists (52%)” or “more (7%)” urban development in their watersheds. Further, 82% want more public funding to protect local waters, with only 9% opposing.(Source: Watershed Public Opinion Survey, Jan. 2015). Public spending is incongruous with public values and priorities. They’re now bashing a better bus systems cost, citing it will create too many new jobs.

What we see in the Wasatch is no different from what’s happening with the Inland Port, the Bear River diversion, the Lake Powell Pipeline, Uinta Basin Railway, coal ports in California and frivolous lawsuits to take public lands from the public.

The only thing that trickles down in our canyons is our water, assuming a changing climate doesn’t further jostle the jet stream and exacerbate evapotranspiration. It’s beyond time to protect the Wasatch from the exploits of UDOT and well-connected developer-politician types angling to put the conservation of our canyons in check. We need leadership to invest in proactive, protective policies not grotesque gambits.

Carl Fisher is the executive director of Save Our Canyons

Carl Fisher is executive director of Save Our Canyons who seeks to protect the wildness and beauty of the majestic Wasatch Mountains.