Ravell Call, Deseret News
Skiers and environmentalists are watching a bill working its way through the U.S. Congress that would provide for the sale of approximately 30 acres of national forest land for construction of SkiLink, a gondola that would connect Solitude and Canyons ski resorts.
Proposals for connecting the resorts — which are 5 miles apart as the crow flies, yet, because they are located in separate canyons, require nearly an hour to drive between — go back decades. SkiLink is the most recent proposal, and one of the most responsible to date. But the federal legislation has raised concerns that local municipalities with legal stewardship for the watershed in the Wasatch canyons are being cut out of the decision process.
Several months ago, we wrote that it would be ideal for a rigorous and independent environmental impact analysis to take place prior to congressional action on this issue.
Having now read the text of the bill, however, we are encouraged that the bill itself requires compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and other applicable laws. We would be even more encouraged if the bill could be amended to specify that NEPA environmental assessments occur prior to any conveyance of federal land. The current wording is vague on when NEPA assessment would be undertaken.
It would also help allay concerns if the bill specifically restricted the use of the conveyed land to the kind of point-to-point gondola system that Talisker has been talking about in its public presentations.
We are further encouraged that Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County would retain their power to approve and direct activity in the watershed as the proposal moved forward. All current zoning ordinances and other laws regarding private development in the watershed would remain in force. The legislation is not necessarily a guarantee that the gondola will be built; in fact, it contains a provision for return of the land to the federal government in the event that it is not built.
It is vitally important that local governments continue to exercise their stewardship and be involved in the details of land use decisions in the canyons. And it is equally important for projects like SkiLink to have the opportunity to be debated, investigated and considered.
Other environmental concerns about precedent for expansion are also important, as is the observation that SkiLink is not strictly a transportation solution. But it is also not clearly an expansion as no new terrain is proposed, and this distinction has confused the discussion.
This is unfortunate. There is precedent in Big Cottonwood Canyon for the compatibility of water quality and a robust ski industry. With careful consideration and adherence to established environmental principles, this delicate balance can continue to exist alongside healthy, deliberate development.
We believe discussions should continue to move forward about the economic and environmental impacts of SkiLink, that the relevant local stakeholders and municipalities should be intimately involved, and that Utah should move toward innovative and responsible solutions for stewardship and land use that meet the needs of all its citizens.