Ski resorts align on proposed 'interconnect'

Published: Friday, March 21 2014 1:05 p.m. MDT

Going through gates into backcountry terrain.

Ski Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — A new proposal to connect skiers and snowboarders to several of the state’s top winter resorts is garnering support from some factions while drawing concern from other winter enthusiasts who worry the plan could harm the delicate balance between developed and undeveloped recreation areas.

On Wednesday, representatives of seven central Wasatch ski areas, along with Ski Utah, unveiled a proposal to develop an over-the-snow connection between Alta Ski Area, Brighton Resort, Canyons Resort, Deer Valley Resort, Park City Mountain Resort, Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, and Solitude Mountain Resort via chairlift and ski run called ONE Wasatch. The plan would allow access to more than 18,000 ski-area acres all on one lift ticket.

Speaking at a news conference, Ski Utah president and CEO Nathan Rafferty said the interconnect would be unique in North America.

“With thoughtful planning and sincere cooperation, ONE Wasatch would add significantly to what is already one of the greatest ski destinations in the world,” he said. “It would allow us to have something that nobody else has, and, from a business perspective, that’s a really big deal.”

Some destinations in Europe have connections between resorts, Rafferty said, but no such large-scale, multiple resort connector currently exists in the U.S. or Canada.

Developing such an interconnect would cost between $20 million to $30 million to build six ski lifts and could be completed in about one summer construction season. All work would be done on private land, so no public lands would be disturbed.

But Rafferty was quick to point out that ONE Wasatch is “a concept, not a plan.” Resort partners have no specific execution timelines or chairlift alignments, he said.

The goal of ONE Wasatch is to establish a vision for a one-of-a-kind mountain experience by providing information, outlining the process, encouraging dialog and listening to feedback, Rafferty said.

Critics of the concept claim the interconnect would negatively impact those who enjoy the pristine natural beauty of the undeveloped areas where many people recreate.

The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance — a grass-roots group advocating for winter, human-powered recreation in the central Wasatch — believes the current balance between opportunities for resort and backcountry skiing is a crucial component of Utah’s attraction as a winter recreation mecca that must be protected, said Jamie Kent, the alliance's board president.

Given the significant growth in backcountry skiing and snowshoeing in the face of declining or flat resort skiing numbers, it is evident that human-powered winter recreation is an increasingly important contributor to Utah’s economy and quality of life, Kent said.

“Anything that could encroach on those areas could tip the unique balance that we share between the developed resorts and undeveloped backcountry,” he said. “It’s something we don’t want to see happen.”

Kent said an interconnect would do little to bolster the winter sports economy or the area's overall well-being.

Meanwhile, managers of the state’s top resorts claim that because of the proximity of the Wasatch Front ski areas, it would be possible to link the seven resorts by connecting Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, Big Cottonwood Canyon to Park City, Park City Mountain Resort to Canyons Resort and dropping the boundary rope between Deer Valley and Park City Mountain Resort.

Mike Goar, vice president and general manager of Canyons Resort, said proper planning and development would ensure the natural resources and beauty of the Wasatch ski areas would remain while still establishing “one of the greatest ski destinations in the world.”

“ONE Wasatch is a concept which has developed over many years and whose time has finally come,” Goar said. “With careful planning and collaboration, the positive impacts from ONE Wasatch can benefit everyone.”

The cost of a ONE Wasatch lift ticket has yet to be determined, he said, but it would be “not much more than an individual ticket.” The ticket would allow access to the various resorts over a prescribed amount of time.

“If the price of a ticket gets too far out of line from the individual resort, then it (would) not work,” Goar said. “The pricing has to be competitive with any single, large ski resort.”

He also acknowledged the issues raised by backcountry enthusiasts who have expressed apprehension about the concept in its potential impact on undeveloped areas.

“That is a legitimate concern and has to be part of the discussion,” Goar said. “Lets have a conversation about the best ways to avoid (the popular backcountry areas).”

Email: jlee@deseretnews.com, Twitter: JasenLee1

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