In a state rife with land disputes, few are as polarizing as the one regarding SkiLink, a proposed transit lift between Canyons and Solitude. SkiLink is a hot-button social, environmental and economic issue for Utahns, and the divide between stakeholders is gaping. This is the eighth in a series of stories breaking down the issues around Utah’s most controversial ski lift.

The U.S. Capitol Building. PHOTO: Tommy Schultz via StockFreeImages.com

SkiLink makes Nathan Rafferty’s job difficult. As the president of Ski Utah, a non-profit promoter of the state’s skiing industry, the idea of an interconnect is attractive to Rafferty. But SkiLink throws an interesting wrinkle into the mix.

“People get confused and don’t realize that you can be for a seven-area, over-the-snow interconnect,” Rafferty says, “even if you vehemently don’t like SkiLink.”

Why is SkiLink unique from any other interconnect project? The answer, quite simply, is the involvement of an organization Utahns typically want nothing to do with—the federal government.

In order for SkiLink to be built, at least in its current capacity, federal legislation introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop must pass. The land that SkiLink would occupy is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, and leasing of the land requires a fairly extensive process. To combat this, Bishop introduced a bill, dubbed the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act, that would force the feds to sell a 30-acre parcel to Talisker, Canyons’ parent company, at a fair market price.

Not surprisingly, this move has many up in arms. Even those open to an interconnect system among Wasatch resorts are suspect of SkiLink because of the handoff of public land to a private corporation.

“The proponents [of SkiLink] decided not to go through [the federal] political process,” says Laura Briefer, water resources manager for the Salt Lake City public works department. “They said we just want the Forest Service to convey the lands to us so we can build.”

The primary concern of Briefer and other SkiLink opponents is that federal legislation would allow Talisker to circumvent the federal regulatory process. For Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker, this is seen as a deviation from traditional land management practices in the Wasatch.

“[SkiLink legislation] is such a gross departure from what has been a successful collective effort by the Forest Service, Salt Lake City, and Salt Lake County,” Becker says. “We don’t always agree on everything, but we work together to...balance out the uses in the canyons and to recognize the unique qualities of these mountains.”

Ski resort development often occurs on federal land, but in the case of SkiLink, avoiding the Forest Service process was seen as a necessity.

Mike Goar, managing director at Canyons Resort. PHOTO: Canyons Resort.

“[The Forest Service] gave us little indication that was a viable alternative when we originally talked to them,” says Canyons Managing Director Mike Goar. Talisker, according to Goar, viewed the connection between Big Cottonwood Canyon and Park City as the most difficult leg of an interconnect to accomplish from a bureaucratic standpoint. The Forest Service’s Central Wasatch Master Plan didn’t include any ski resort development, so Talisker sought what it viewed as the best possible alternative.

For Rafferty, this is a tough sell. He chose not to comment on SkiLink specifically, but Ski Utah has openly supported a Wasatch-wide interconnect system. Until SkiLink legislation fails or passes, Rafferty will have to continue to define the separation between interconnect and what would be a federally-mandated SkiLink process. In Utah, it’s an important distinction to make.