PARK CITY — A proposal for a gondola that would link Canyons ski resort to Solitude has come off the drafting board and would necessitate the sale of 30 acres of Forest Service land, giving rise to sharp criticism by even those it is designed to serve.
Introduced as SkiLink, the gondola system would unite 6,000 acres of terrain to support the snow sport industry and be a one-of-a-kind recreation network for the United States, resort officials say.
“SkiLink creates a game-changing advantage for Utah and for the U.S. snow sport industry,” said Mike Goar, managing director of Canyons, a Talisker Mountain Inc. resort. “It would establish Utah as the most interesting and convenient mountain destination in the U.S. and will positively benefit our local economies."
But in a Wednesday letter written by Peter Metcalf on behalf of the Utah Ski & Snowboard Industry, Gov. Gary Herbert was asked to publicly denounce a congressional measure that would facilitate a land sale for construction of the project.
"Further ski lift expansion will compromise the present balance and integrity that exists between wilderness and ski areas, let alone watershed integrity," Metcalf wrote, requesting Herbert to "take a stand" and ask Utah's GOP Congressman Rob Bishop to forego his measure in the best interest of the state.
Herbert has previously said he believes a gondola could be a workable addition to the ski resorts, as long as environmental protections were not compromised.
The legislation in question was introduced Thursday by Bishop as well as Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, all Utah Republicans. The lone member of Utah's delegation to oppose the effort is Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who said he's concerned about its environmental impacts, especially on the watershed.
"The case has not been made to me that it is a good idea," he said.
Bishop's measure would jump start environmental studies required under the federal regulations such as the National Environmental Policy Act. Canyons would also have to work with Salt Lake City on watershed issues and acquire necessary permits from Salt Lake and Summit counties.
Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon said those reviews will determine the viability of the proposal.
"Generally speaking I am a supporter of connecting our ski resorts," Corroon said. "It has to be done in an environmentally responsible manner and I don't want it to be done to expand ski terrain into protected areas."
Goar is touting his eight-passenger SkiLink gondola as an efficient transportation system that can help ease traffic woes with its capacity to transport 1,000 people per hour each way in just 11 minutes. Such a transportation system would help the environment, save time for snow enthusiasts and expand the recreational experience, he added.
“Every day during the ski season, out-of-town and local skiers roam between Canyons and the Big Cottonwood Canyon resorts to experience the diversity of terrain each has to offer. Studies have reported that SkiLink would decrease canyon traffic by providing an alternative to the 45-mile drive between the two canyons that can take 45 minutes to an hour depending on traffic. Plus, staying on the slopes during your ski day is a whole lot more fun than driving.”
Goar added he is well aware of the criticism and welcomes reviews of the proposal.
"The project is not going to pass muster if environmental concerns cannot be adequately addressed," he said, adding that the studies he's had carried out so far support a gondola.
"They confirm that a lift can be built without degrading water quality, without adverse impacts to the watershed. The findings confirm that."
Ski Utah President and CEO Nathan Rafferty has also come out in favor of a mega ski resort because of its "wow factor" and the ability to reduce congestion and other traffic problems that already pose headaches for skiers and snowboarders.
But skier Kurt Nielsen, interviewed at Solitude ski resort, said he's strongly opposed the idea of a gondola.
"It's all about money and access for the 'haves' in the Park City area," he said. "I am a 'have not.'"
SkiLink has prompted concern by Salt Lake officials since they first heard of it and the reaction was no less tempered on Thursday.
"This is short-sighted and being done to circumvent the existing planning processes," said Jeff Niermeyer, Salt Lake City's point man for watershed protection.
"The disposal of protected watershed into private ownership concerns us a lot," he said.
Niermeyer, the city's director of public utilities, said he believes Canyons' traffic analysis is flawed, adding that the gondola is masquerading as a transportation solution when it is "really about ski area expansion."
“SkiLink presents tremendous lifestyle, economic and transportation benefits for Utah residents and our nation,” Bishop said. “I have great confidence in the preparation Canyons has completed to this point for the proposed connection. I am pleased to support their vision by introducing this legislation, which will facilitate the next steps of this public process.”