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Parking at Alta? Skiers brace for chaos as town and ski resort clash

A pilot permit program is set to begin Saturday morning, but stakeholders haven’t been able to reach a deal

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pre-season skiers head for Alta's slopes and fill the parking lot of Goldminer's Daughter, Nov. 10, 2021. Alta Ski Area announced in that it would charge $25 for parking in its lots on weekends and holidays this season. The Town of Alta backed off joining the ski area in that plan, at least temporarily, which has made the area a jigsaw of permitted and unpermitted parking.

There was no calm before the storm in the days, even hours before Alta Ski Area’s pilot paid-parking program was set to start this weekend.

A tentative agreement brokered with the Town of Alta broke down, backcountry skiers balked against being shut out of early morning runs and ambiguity surrounded what would happen to anyone who rolled to the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon before lots were set to open Saturday at 8 a.m.

“It’s still confusing, and concerning,” Brad Rutledge, co-founder and board member of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, a winter recreation advocacy group, said Wednesday. He added, “We’re just really concerned that it’s going to be a real mess.”

WHY DID ALTA SKI AREA IMPLEMENT PAID PARKING?

Alta Ski lifts sits mostly on Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest land and, for more than a year, its management has been discussing the possibility of charging for parking with the Salt Lake Ranger District, which manages its special use permit. Those plans were accelerated, however, when interest in the outdoors, and skiing in particular, exploded last season during the pandemic.

“We had to do something with our parking because it just wasn’t sustainable,” Alta spokesperson Andria Huskinson told The Salt Lake Tribune in November. “Last winter, I turned cars around like 12 Saturdays in a row. And people are waiting in the canyon for two hours only to get turned around.”

After the forest service nixed the ski area’s plans to expand its lots or limit parking to resort customers, Alta announced in early November that it would begin requiring parking reservations on weekends and holidays this season.

The permits cost $25 per day for everyone except season passholders, who can reserve them for free, and day ticket holders, who pay $10. The permits are valid from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. After 1 p.m., parking in the ski area lots is free.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A skier makes turns on Alta's slopes in Albion Basin, Nov. 10, 2021.

The new parking system could alleviate several of the problems that have created headaches atop Little Cottonwood Canyon in recent years, Huskinson said — problems that started to rear up again each weekend since the resort opened for the season Nov. 24. She noted that requiring reservations eases congestion in the canyon and the town in two ways: It deters people from coming up when lots are full and allows them to stagger their arrivals, knowing they have a spot waiting. Charging for parking, she added, encourages carpooling in addition to paying for a company to enforce the permits.

Charging for parking is within the ski area’s rights as long as it makes spaces available to all users, according to Ben Kraja, the official who oversees Alta’s special use permit.

And, technically, anyone can park at the ski area. But that doesn’t mean everyone is happy with the plan. In fact, few seem to be.

WHAT DOES PARKING LOOK LIKE IN THE TOWN OF ALTA?

Harris Sondak, the mayor of the Town of Alta, can be counted among the least enthused about the proposed parking system.

Sondak acknowledges the town has been besieged by powderhounds of all sorts in recent years and action is needed. That’s why, he said, he agreed last month to join the ski area in requiring permitted parking in all town lots. As an added benefit, the town would get control of about 60 of the ski area’s parking spaces — more than doubling the town’s total.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aiden Lewis watches as skiers head up High Rustler after a day at Alta, Nov. 10, 2021.

When the resort insisted the town not allow people to park before 8 a.m., though, Sondak said, he had to pull out of the deal.

“The problem with that,” said Sondak, whose term as mayor will expire before the end of the year, “is that the town has an obligation not to close itself capriciously.”

The town has ordinances that allow it to temporarily shut down when necessary to protect the public, Sondak said. Yet he voiced concern that closing each weekend would shut out the public and open up the town of about 400 people to lawsuits it can’t afford.

That decision spawned another set of problems, though.

Alta Ski Area controls about 90% of the parking in and around the Town of Alta. So when the town pulled out of the agreement last week, it was left with approximately 50 parking spaces to service residents, businesses and city employees, like postal workers and police. In addition, those spots undoubtedly will be attractive to many people who want to recreate around Alta but don’t want to pay or didn’t make a reservation with the ski area.

As a stopgap, the town on Tuesday applied for a special use permit to use forest service land along state route 210 for parking, which would give it about 150 more daytime spots. Sondak said some of those spots would be open to the public. What they would cost and how they would be obtained had not been determined.

Kraja said the forest service is working with the town and that getting the permit approved is a top priority. In the meantime, ski area general manager Mike Maughan and Sondak returned to the negotiating table earlier this week. They had not reached an agreement as of Friday afternoon.

Kraja said the forest service has long hoped the ski area and town could come together to create a sustainable solution for upper Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“We really just set the parameters for the two entities,” he said, “and wanted them to build a plan, really from the ground up, that would accommodate all uses for the canyon, holistically.”

But mistrust has been sewn between those two camps, which historically have shared a symbiotic relationship.

The same could be said for the ski area and backcountry users.

‘TWO SIDES OF THE COIN’

The lands at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon are among those in the Central Wasatch Mountains most frequented by backcountry skiers, splitboarders, snowshoers and the like. So for years, Rutledge said, the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance — which advocates for access to human-powered winter recreation — has been communicating with Alta ski area about those groups’ needs, especially when it comes to parking.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pre-season skiers head for Alta's slopes from the parking lot of Goldminer's Daughter, Nov. 10, 2021. The Town of Alta has announced it will charge $25 for a permit to park in one of the lots it controls in town on the weekends this winter. That announcement combined with the Alta Ski Resort's previous announcement that it would charge $25 for parking in its lots on weekends means it will not be possible to visit the town on any weekend 2021 winter without having to pay or take the bus.

So when the resort announced its lots would not open before 8 a.m. — which Alta says is to make sure no one gets in the way of its snow plowing and morning preparations — it didn’t sit well with the community. And especially not with those who partake in “dawn patrol.”

“They ski down when the sun’s rising. It’s a huge, huge tradition,” Rutledge said. “There’s just, like, tons of folklore about all this. The real bragging part about it is you can go up to do a dawn patrol and get a good ski in and then still work a full day.”

Dawn patrol can’t start after 8, nor can those users just take the bus, since UTA’s Ski Bus isn’t scheduled to arrive at Alta until just before 8 a.m. each day.

So, Alta agreed to open one lot of a couple dozen spaces at 6 a.m. They cost $25 on weekends — the same cost as for those that can’t be accessed until 8 — and cannot be purchased with a passholder’s free voucher. However, they also cost $15 on weekdays, even though the rest of the resort’s parking is free after 8.

Rutledge said he’s not against paying, though it is the WBA’s stance that some free parking should exist. What he takes issue with, he said, is that it appears the ski area is discriminating against anyone who wants to visit the Town of Alta for any reason other than to ski at the resort.

“It just doesn’t make sense to be creating a system where they have this control, and people are being singled out,” he said. “One group is being rewarded, and if you’re not a patron of Alta Ski Lifts, you’re going to be feeling the pain and paying a penalty.”

Rutledge added, “It’s really important because there’s a long-established precedent of people accessing public lands from the Grizzly Gulch area. And this will be the first time in which that public-lands access is really being challenged and being managed [by] a for-profit business.”

Rutledge questioned how it came to be that Alta Ski Area seems to have all the parking and thus all the leverage.

Kraja said the forest service cannot dictate the decisions of a business as long as it is operating within forest service policy. So while it could insist Alta allow users other than ski area patrons access to its parking lots, he said it cannot tell the ski area how much to charge or when to open. He noted that every version of Alta’s parking plan he has seen has included early morning parking.

“Blocking off access is a concern for sure for the forest service,” Kraja said. But, he added, “We can’t dictate whether or not the ski area has to allow access to their private property.”

And as it turns out, Alta Ski Area owns much of the Grizzly Gulch area so popular with backcountry tourers.

Alta pointed that out in a statement on the early morning parking page of its website and indicated that it views the current parking plan as a compromise.

“Alta has allowed access to, and use of, its private lands adjacent to the ski area for decades. This has led many to believe these lands are publicly owned. ...” the statement said. “Alta’s parking management plan is designed to allow human powered recreation adjacent to the ski area on its private lands and use of surplus parking in a manner that is manageable and does not impact ski area operations, the Alta Community and Alta skiers.”

Rutledge said the implication that the ski area could withhold public access to its lands while profiting off of public lands rankles him.

“I can tell you that I’ve heard a lot of people get really angry about it and upset,” he said, “because that sort of feels like they’re trying to play two sides of the coin.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jackalope Adventures owner Corey Smaller heads for Alta's slopes, Nov. 10, 2021. Smaller who skis at dawn said the new parking fees at Alta were "inevitable, but we're not happy about it." The Town of Alta has announced it will charge $25 for a permit to park in one of the lots it controls in town on the weekends this winter. That announcement combined with the Alta Ski Resort's previous announcement that it would charge $25 for parking in its lots on weekends means it will not be possible to visit the town on any weekend 2021 winter without having to pay or take the bus.

Rather than wait to see how the parking drama plays out, and whether more spots will be opened to the general public, though, the WBA has taken matters into its own hands. It has created a rideshare service that will take backcountry users to Alta and back every Saturday, starting as early as 5:30 a.m. Huskinson said the ski area will provide the rideshare vans with free parking in one of its north lots.

That donation-based service starts Jan. 8. What parking around Alta will look like until then, or even after, is anyone’s guess.

“There are going to be some kinks that have to be worked out for sure,” Huskinson said. “It will be interesting to see what skiers do.”

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