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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Solitude Ski Resort is seen from Guardsman Pass in Big Cottonwood Canyon Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011. A proposal to build a tram or ski lift to link The Canyons with Solitude is in the works.

SALT LAKE CITY —  Someday, skiers and snowboarders in Summit County may be able to ride a tram more than a mile to a skiing destination in Salt Lake County.

A plan is in the works to build a tram between Canyons and Solitude resorts that would be first ski facility ever to cross the spine of the Wasatch Mountains.

Proponents of the joint project between Talisker Corp, owner of Canyons in Summit County, and Solitude Mountain Resort in Salt Lake County would be a way for recreationists to reach Solitude without driving from the Salt Lake Valley up the often-congested highway in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

But opponents argue the benefits of the proposal are overstated and it could harm rather than help Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Resort officials said  the design and route for the tram have not been chosen, nor have final decisions been made. And while a tram is the preferred approach, proponents have not fully ruled out a chair-lift instead. Officials said a press conference could be held as soon as two weeks to announce the plan.

Somewhere near the top of the Canyons lifts in Summit County, skiers would board the tram. It would climb over the Wasatch Divide, and plunge into Big Cottonwood Canyon. Skiers and snowboarders could enjoy the slopes at Solitude and, at the end of the day, return to The Canyons on the same tram.

Long-time skier James Marshall heard about the plan while bicycling near Solitude. "Sounds like a great idea because there'd be less congestion," Marshall said. "It would make it more dynamic."

That echoes the primary argument proponents are making to win approval for the tram.

Ted Wilson, spokesman for Talisker Corp., said skiers could park their cars in Summit County and ski at both resorts in one day. "We have 5,0000 to 8,000 cars going to Big Cottonwood Canyon on the big weekends," Wilson said. "We believe that we could save up to a million miles of car traffic (each winter) on the Big Cottonwood side."

But some environmentalists oppose the plan, arguing that few skiers would consider it worth the trouble to park their cars in Summit County. "You have to ride maybe four lifts (at The Canyons) to get to where you would take this interconnect down to Solitude," said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons.

Wilson argues that skiers would be attracted to start their skiing day at The Canyons because it has easier parking and freeway access instead of the winding, congested road in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Another point of controversy is whether the tram would open up more terrain for downhill skiing on the Big Cottonwood side. Wilson said the tram would be designed without a stopping point on the highest ridgeline. That would prevent skiers from dismounting there and skiing down to Solitude on undeveloped slopes of Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Fisher argues that existing chair-lifts at Canyons resort already reach the highest ridge from the Summit County side, where skiers could descend on the undeveloped slopes to Solitude and then return to The Canyons on the tram.

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"Canyon skiers could flood the area more than they already are," Fisher said. "The Wasatch is becoming a very, very crowded place and there's a bunch of different uses that take place in this area." He said snow-shoe enthusiasts, winter photographers and back-country skiers might be forced out of the area if the tram brings hordes of downhill skiers.

The plan is rekindling a controversy that's been smoldering for decades. Some critics worry it's the kickoff of the so-called Ski Interconnect, a longstanding proposal to link all the major resorts in the Wasatch. "It's definitely a step toward creating one huge mega-resort in the Wasatch," Fisher said.

The tram, or chair-lift if it's scaled down, would need approval from the U.S. Forest Service. The plan would be subject to an open public process and an environmental review.

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com