The participants in the recent public hearing on the Wasatch Canyons Master Plan, prepared by the Salt Lake County and Bear West Consulting, seems to focus on only one aspect of the canyon future, ski-interconnect.The private citizens who responded at the hearings generally opposed the idea, and the local business groups generally supported the idea.
The idea of a ski-interconnect has been argued constantly for many years, and I believe it is unrealistic to expect any resolution on the concept now. Surely, if the idea had any clear and unambiguous benefits the discussion would have long ago been concluded.
The polarization of support for the ski-interconnect is interesting in itself. It is very difficult not to question why the Chamber of Commerce and "boosterism" groups continually support the concept, whereas the private citizens seem to have negative impression of the concept.
There are probably two reasons for this polarization. The proponents of the ski-interconnect never seem to waiver in their support. In every public discussion the proponents of the ski-interconnect bring out a new and different development plan for another showing.
A second explanation for the polarization may be that the supporters of the concept have never effectively marketed the idea to the citizens of the Wasatch Front.
This continual focus on the ski-interconnect is detrimental to the land-use planning process. The citizens and groups that have differing opinions on the ski-interconnect may actually agree on many issues concerning the Wasatch Canyons. Some of these issues are dispersed recreation, year-round public use of the canyons, and improvement of ski-area facilities within the ski area permitted boundaries. The planning process should work towards forging an agreement on these important topics first.
A proper master plan should primarily set goals for the Wasatch area, and then examine how different development schemes mesh with these goals. The public then must balance the private gains with public gains and the public losses.
In reality, if these people contributing to the master plan could temporarily set aside the ski-interconnect issue I believe there could be some real progress made on the Wasatch Canyons Master Plan.
There are three ways in which concentrating on the ski-interconnect detracts from the planning process. The alpine skiing industry is expected to experience relatively flat growth in the future. This means that an increase in skiers in Utah will likely be offset by a decline in skiers somewhere else.
The point is that the total public benefit is unaffected in these zero-sum games, except for the loss of public resources such as land and year-round recreational opportunity. The public economic benefit is unchanged, but the remaining reserves of public resources decline along with the set of future development opportunities.
The county planning process is supposed to address the year-round use of the Wasatch Canyons. The ski-interconnect is very much a winter proposal, and a very limited winter proposal at best. The ski season, in good years, extends from Thanksgiving to Easter. The "real" season, when facilities are used near full capacity, is the week of the Christmas holiday, the weekend of President's Day, and sometimes a weekend or two in January or part of Thanksgiving.
The focus on the ski-interconnect means that the planning process is concentrating on a idea that has a capacity tourist season of less than 20 days, but a year-round land-use impact.
The third way in which concentrating on the ski-interconnect detracts from the planning process is also related to the expected flat demand for alpine skiing. The ski business was in a growth situation 20 years ago, but now the industry is described as mature. Mr. Houlihan of Solitude mentioned to me that ski areas were not necessarily a desirable investment in today's financial environment.
A reasonable marketing strategy for Utah tourism would be to examine all of the options searching for a future growth niche, and then to concentrate efforts in this areas of future growth. Tourism is already an entrenched industry in the Wasatch Mountains, but that industry is very young with a strong growth potential in other portions of the state. Utah tourism would be better served by the anticipation of future trends rather than trying to play catch-up to the trends of yesterday.
In conclusion, the one-dimensional character of the response to the Wasatch Canyons Master Plan demonstrated by the focus on the ski-interconnect is to the detriment of the planning process.
The users of the Wasatch Mountains asked for a more complete planning process, and they deserve a planning process that emphasizes more than ski-interconnect. The goal is to develop the plan with a focus on consensus, not division.