SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Forest Service told Congress Friday that a proposed ski lift connecting two Utah resorts would mar the alpine backcountry, split a roadless area in two and leave a narrow corridor of private land in the middle of a national forest.
Acting deputy chief of staff Gregory Smith of the Forest Service said federal officials opposes legislation introduced last month by Utah's Republican delegation that would authorize the land sale for a two-mile-long gondola linking the Canyons Resort and Solitude Mountain Resort.
Smith testified on behalf of the Forest Service's U.S. Agriculture Department at a hearing broadcast over the Internet by the House subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands.
"While we appreciate the desire of the bill's proponents to reduce traffic between the two resorts, the department does not support" the legislation, said Smith, who called it "inconsistent with efforts to consolidate ownership within forest boundaries."
The resorts say the ski lift would travel over forest land without dumping off skiers in the backcountry or harming water supplies. Smith said the Forest Service hasn't been able to scrutinize one of the strongest points put forward by the Canyons — that a gondola would significantly reduce road traffic between one side of the 11,000-foot Wasatch Range and the other.
Many visitors stay in Park City but travel around the mountains to sample ski areas accessible from Salt Lake City, Canyons managing director Mike Goar told the subcommittee.
The narrow canyons on the Salt Lake side of the Wasatch Range can back up with traffic for miles on busy ski days.
"This is a tremendous first step in creating transportation alternatives," Goar said. "Gondolas are used all over the world for transportation. ... Every car taken off the road is a win for all of us."
The proposed inter-resort gondola is "the camel's nose under the tent" that could open the mountains to further ski area development, said Jeff Niermeyer, public utilities director for Salt Lake City, which was ceded control of the Wasatch canyons long ago by Congress for a water supply.
Niermeyer said five of the seven Wasatch ski areas that practically rub shoulders are working on plans to add chair lifts to the backcountry, some as links to neighboring resorts. He opposes all of the plans.
In Washington, Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker said any ski expansion is "of enormous concern," and he called the Canyons' justification for a connecting lift "badly inadequate."
Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Coroon said the resorts have yet to put forth any reliable studies showing the impact of lift connections or expansions.
"I will not support measures which compromise our environment, watersheds, or protected wilderness," he said.
The Canyons — which would bankroll the cost of the gondola — said the lift would not drop off skiers in the backcountry while traveling over the Wasatch Range and landing in a parking lot at Solitude.
"SkiLink can be built without any degradation to water quality," Goar said.