Solitude Ski Resort won approval from the U.S. Forest Service Monday afternoon for sweeping new developments and realignments, a project expected to increase the resort's capacity by 35 percent.
The issuance of an environmental assessment and the approval came after months of controversy and hearings about Solitude's expansion plans. Only the first phase of Solitude's master plan was approved.Other proposals by the resort - plans for new overnight units and a sewer line in Big Cottonwood Canyon - are not yet approved.
The action by Wasatch National Forest Supervisor Dale Bosworth was praised by Solitude but de-nounced by environmentalists as leading to an increase in congestion in Big Cottonwood Canyon. It was also attacked on the ground that approval was given before Salt Lake County had completed its canyon master plan.
Under the expansion, Solitude will realign the Moonbeam and Inspiration chairlifts, which were laid out before 1960. A new double chairlift will be built, running parallel to the Powderhorn Lift to a knoll at the top of Fleet Street.
A new Link double chairlift will connect the Inspiration parking lot with new day-use facilities. Trail adjustments will redirect skiers to the new lift loading areas. Meanwhile, bottom lift terminals will be moved to a slightly higher elevation.
In the base area, a new facility will be built where customers will wait for the Utah Transit Authority buses, and there will be a teenage "retreat" with games, music and refreshments. Various new food-service operations will replace the large cafeteria, and a private club will provide a lounge.
"The selected alternative will increase Solitude's skier-at-one-time capacity from 3,400 to 4,600," said Dick Kline, Salt Lake District ranger for Wasatch-Cache National Forest. He said the new level is within limits of the forest plan approved in 1985.
In exchange for these improvements, Solitude agrees it has no future desire to expand into Silver Fork, said Bosworth. The Forest Plan is amended to remove Silver Fork from consideration for ski-area development during the life of the plan.
Some minor boundary adjustments will be made also, reducing the amount of Forest Service land under permit to Solitude by 20 acres.
"We're just very excited that a favorable decision finally came through," said Mike Gore, vice president of mountain operations for Solitude.
The project can begin in 15 days, he said. However, the Quad Chairlift won't be built until next summer, to open the following winter.
"We still hope to build the Link chairlift, the new beginner lift," this year, he said.
The lift development should cost more than $3 million, Gore said.
University of Utah Prof. B. Gail Dick, a member of the board of Save Our Canyons, said he is upset with the Salt Lake County Planning Commission and the County Commission for approving the expansion, when the county's master plan was not yet completed.
This was a compromise of the master-planning process, he said.
Dick said he believes a "traffic overload" will result in Big Cottonwood Canyon. He promised the battle will continue over Solitude's future plans.
"We'll be after this for the next 20 years," Dick said.
Rudy Lukez, conservation chairman for the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter, said the group is disappointed. "We've been real concerned all along by the people who are trying to ever increase the development of the canyons," he said.
"Canyons have a lot of other values besides just providing a place for downhill ski facilities."