In a state rife with land disputes, few are as polarizing as the one regarding SkiLink, a proposed transit lift between Canyons Resort and Solitude. SkiLink is a hot-button social, environmental and economic issue for Utahns, and the divide between stakeholders is gaping. This is the ninth, and last, in a series of stories breaking down the issues around Utah’s most controversial ski lift.
When the curtain dropped on the 112th Legislative Session, the slate of bills and resolutions that didn’t reach the floor was wiped clean. Among the lost resolutions was the Wasatch Range Recreation Enhancement Access Act, Rep. Rob Bishop’s proposed bill that would sell Forest Service land to Talisker for the construction of SkiLink. According to Melissa Subbotin, Bishop’s spokeswoman, there is no timetable for the resolution to be reintroduced in the new Congressional session, which means there is a chance SkiLink could never materialize.
The future of the lift is uncertain, but there are some likely outcomes depending on the end status of the federal legislation. If the legislation fails, or is not reintroduced, then Talisker has a steep uphill battle. On the flip side, passed legislation would all but guarantee the construction of SkiLink. And, no matter which way the legislation goes, don’t expect the push for a Wasatch interconnect to die any time soon.
If the bill fails
When it comes to SkiLink, Talisker is putting all of its eggs in the Legislative basket. “There is not a backup plan at this point,” says Canyons Managing Director Mike Goar. “There’s nothing in the works. I’m not sure what avenues we would have to do it a different way.”
Canyons Managing Director Mike Goar.
Ski resorts looking to expand into Forest Service land traditionally went through the process outlined by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This course of action is quite extensive as it includes a thorough Environmental Impact Statement and biological studies, rounds of public comment, and the consideration of alternatives, including no action being taken. In all, the NEPA path can take well over five years to complete.
Talisker opted not to take this route, instead seeking to move the process to a local level via Bishop’s legislation.
Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker is confident the bill won’t make it through Congress.
“If Representative Bishop gets it through the House, I don’t think it would pass in the Senate,” Becker says. “If it passed in the Senate, then we have friends in the White House who I hope would stop it from passing. We have worked that hard to set up a bulwark that’s a defense against that legislation passing, and I’m determined it won’t.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker.
If Becker’s prediction is correct, Goar says Talisker would consider applying for development to the Forest Service. While, according to Goar, the Forest Service gave no indication of approval during early talks with Talisker (a formal application was never made), the Forest Service has catered to the resorts before. SkiLink construction isn’t impossible without the federal legislation, but it is very unlikely.
If the bill passes
Goar has made one thing very clear - if the SkiLink legislation is signed into law, that doesn’t give Talisker the green light to begin construction.
“[The legislation] would place 100 percent of the approval process with local government,” Goar says, “so if we prevail at the federal level, all that does is allow us to make application of the project.”
Talisker’s application would be handled by Summit and Salt Lake Counties. While analyses would be conducted, the process is far less rigorous than what developers must go through when applying for construction on federally-owned land. Rather than follow the process laid out by NEPA, which takes a broad approach to environmental impacts and public comment, the county process is much more centralized.
The county’s planning review procedure does take into account issues such as watershed, transportation, and slope impacts, but most of their analysis focuses on what will work tomorrow, not the impacts 10 years down the line.
“NEPA is more of a long-term process,” says Salt Lake County planning director Rolen Yoshinaga. “Our processes are more in the moment.”
By these criteria, if the legislation passes, there will be little to prevent the construction of SkiLInk. If the lift is stable, then the county will deem it safe. There is little to no chance of significant watershed impact in the immediate future, and SkiLink won’t have any adverse effects on driving up Big Cottonwood Canyon. Unless Salt Lake and Summit counties find any glaring short-term issues with the transport lift, the passing of Rep. Bishop’s legislation will likely be followed by SkiLink construction.
What’s next for the Wasatch interconnect
Regardless of the fate of SkiLink, the push for a Wasatch interconnect won’t end. The idea of a seven-resort connection is too attractive for the resorts involved, and future proposals for transit lifts are already in the works.
“This is an efficient way to grow the resorts without explicitly growing the footprint,” says Ski Utah president Nathan Rafferty. “By connecting all seven [Wasatch resorts], you can have one lift ticket and 18,000 skiable acres... That’s an opportunity for our industry to be able to offer something that nobody else does.”
While an interconnect may not be universally supported, Salt Lake City and County officials are looking to find a comprehensive approach to how citizens use and move around the Wasatch Canyons. The last Central Wasatch Master Plan was drafted in 1989, and Becker says the community is ready for an update.
“Over and over again, the people of this valley have said they value skiing, but they don’t want the tops of our mountains to turn into Disney Land,” Becker says. “They treasure, number one, water, but also... [that] you can have a true wilderness experience within minutes of downtown Salt Lake City. To throw that out the window without consideration, which would have been the precedent set by SkiLink legislation, to me was offensive.”
Becker’s goal is to bring all stakeholders to the table - local governments, ski resorts, and citizen organizations - and iron out a new master plan for the Wasatch. As the Wasatch Front population continues to grow, watershed, recreation, and transportation are going to be important aspects of how Salt Lake residents identify themselves and escape from the city below the peaks.
And the fate of SkiLink, one way or the other, could determine the future of land policy in the Wasatch canyons.