Christopher Smart: Selling off what makes living in Utah special for quick cash

We should not be in such a hurry to get more people up to Utah ski resorts.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A steady line of hikers make their way up Walter's Wiggles on the trail to Angel's Landing in Zion National Park, the most sought-after bucket list hike for visitors, Sept. 25, 2021. June 2021 was the busiest month ever for the park, which is on course to have its busiest year ever, surpassing 2019's 4.5 million visitors

The photo on the front page of The Tribune’s Oct. 10 Sunday edition should tell you all you need to know about how much Utah’s power brokers think about sustainability and responsible stewardship.

The photo shows a throng hiking shoulder-to-shoulder up Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park as though they were standing in a packed line for the roller coaster at Lagoon. And perhaps that is how our elected officials regard our natural wonders, like they’re amusement parks.

Want to get in touch with nature? Well then, you might want to skip Utah.

From Arches to Alta, the only value our government and business leaders seem to place on our precious landscapes is a monetary one. They are nothing more than commodities to be packaged and sold.

Not only is it not a secret the state spends millions to bring crowds here, they actually brag about it. “Utah’s Might Five” — Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capital Reef and Zion national parks — has been a much ballyhooed advertising campaign that has brought tourists by the millions to our fragile red rock country.

Here is part of a press release from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development on May 27, 2013: “The Utah Office of Tourism launched a $3.1 million spring/summer regional advertising campaign to promote Utah’s five national parks known as The Mighty Five™. The campaign will include TV commercials in Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle, as well as digital outdoor, wallscapes, online, and social media.”

Utah’s national parks saw 10.6 million visitors in 2018, up from 6.3 million in 2013 — a 68 percent increase that state officials say was due in large part to advertising.

In 2019, Kevin Walker, chairman of the Democratic Party in Grand County (which includes Moab) told Outside Magazine: “They put so many people in [the parks] that they basically broke them.”

There are more impacts. Longtime residents of Moab are looking to relocate now that the once sleepy stopover has become so overcrowded as to be unbearable. Savvy Utahns know to avoid Moab from April through October.

The same plague, of course, has engulfed northern Utah as Wasatch Mountain ski resorts have become so crowded that many lifelong Utah skiers have written them off. It seems incredible that there now is a debate about how to get more people up Little Cottonwood Canyon. The power brokers have given little thought to the canyon’s carrying capacity and that perhaps the number of cars or skiers should be limited.

The fact is that for Ski Utah and the Utah Office of Tourism and their ilk, there will never be enough skiers on our mountains. It’s all about the numbers and dollars, not the experience or the canyon’s environment.

Here’s a telling announcement from Ski Utah at the end of last ski season: “Utah ski resorts saw a record-breaking total of 5,301,766 skier days in the 2020-21 winter season. Utah’s skier days for 2020-21 were up 3.44 percent over the previous record-breaking season of 5.13 million skier days in the 2018-19 season.”

By comparison, skier days for the 2003-04 season totaled 3,386,141, which means last season saw 2 million more skiers than 17 years ago.

Unlike Colorado, where ski areas are spread across the state, most of those 2 million additional skiers are packed into only three adjacent locals: Big and Little Cottonwood canyons and the Park City area.

Like the Cottonwoods, it’s a challenge to get to Deer Valley or the mega resort owned by Vail that once was the Park City Ski Area and the neighboring Canyons resort. Traffic jams and long lines are just part of the landscape.

Whether in our mountains or our deserts, many Utahns seek solace outdoors and renewal from nature as an important counterbalance to our increasingly dizzying culture.

Turning these natural wonders into capitalistic cash cows without regard to the environment reflects a value system that Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Edward Abbey would find repugnant. As Joni Mitchell once said: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.”

Christopher Smart

Christopher Smart is a freelance journalist in Salt Lake City and the author of Smart Bomb, which appears in City Weekly.