SALT LAKE CITY >> The Wasatch Range, towering over an arid, urban sprawl of a million people, provides two important assets that are increasingly at odds — a vital supply of water for residents and pristine snow for a ski industry that rakes in $1.2 billion a year.
Now, two competing bills in Congress are setting up a new skirmish in the West’s perennial battle between conservation and development.
One bill, involving an ambitious project known as SkiLink, was filed by Rep. Rob Bishop, Republican from northern Utah. It would allow developers to bypass some jurisdictional and environmental protections to build a gondola linking the base of the Solitude ski area in Salt Lake County and the upper part of the Canyons ski area in Summit County.
The bill would override some federal and local restrictions on ski areas in the Wasatch Range and would require the U.S. Forest Service to sell 30 acres of public land to accommodate SkiLink.
The competing bill, the Wasatch Wilderness and Watershed Protection Act, was created after two years of public meetings and was introduced by Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat who represents the area. It would preserve the same tract of Forest Service land for its “wilderness quality” and watershed.
For more than 100 years, the towering range has been protected as a watershed. Expansions of ski areas in the central Wasatch are not allowed under multiple jurisdictional management plans, which the resorts say inhibit their ability to compete.
Ski areas now cover 6,294 acres of the central Wasatch, though Bishop’s legislation could create a legal precedent that could pave the way to more than double that, encompassing the watershed’s headwaters and affecting Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, which are home to four ski areas and supply 60 percent of Salt Lake City’s water.
Seven ski areas — on both the western and eastern slopes of the Wasatch — are nearby, and two share boundaries. Nathan Rafferty, the president of Ski Utah, an industry coalition, dreams of connecting all seven of them — a “Super Seven connection,” he calls it. Last month, the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce started a new coalition, Lift Utah, supporting SkiLink as a first step to realizing that goal.
“An interconnection would boost the ski industry tremendously,” said state Sen. Wayne L. Niederhauser, a Republican who is sponsoring a state resolution supporting the concept. “This will be a game changer. There’s nothing like this in the United States.”
SkiLink’s opponents, though, say the project goes beyond providing a way to link the areas and would open the door to an increase in acreage for ski slopes.
Jeff Niermeyer, the director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities, one of the agencies responsible for watershed protection, recently stood over a map in his office showing 11 additional proposed ski area expansions beyond SkiLink. “It’s the cumulative effect of expansion that we are worried about,” he said.
Niermeyer said the watershed was so sensitive that a water treatment plant must be shut down whenever there is digging in Big Cottonwood Creek.
Proponents and critics of SkiLink differ sharply over how the project would affect the watershed and the region. Salt Lake City’s two major newspapers have split on the project.
Mark Menlove, a former head of Ski Utah, said the Wasatch already had “a good balance between ski resorts and backcountry skiing, and something of the magnitude of SkiLink would forever alter that and certainly make the Central Wasatch less attractive to backcountry skiers.”
Mike Goar, the managing director of Canyons Resort, said the proposed SkiLink gondola would be suspended along more than 20 towers ranging from 20 to 40 feet tall and would move a thousand people an hour on the 11-minute ride across nearly 3 miles. He said it could be built in one summer.
A 2010 preliminary study prepared for the Talisker Corp., which owns the Canyons ski area, predicted a $51 million increase in the state’s economy in SkiLink’s first year, creating jobs and revenue that would go up in future years.
The study put the cost of building the system at $35 million, though Goar said in a recent interview that the cost would be $10 million. Talisker officials declined to comment.
A similar debate over public land before the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City could offer a clue, critics of the project say, to how developers might try to break the limits that Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City and the U.S. Forest Service have imposed on development in the watershed.
In that controversy, Earl Holding, the owner of the Snowbasin ski area, pressed the Forest Service to privatize land at the base so he could build a lodge. Ultimately, Utah’s congressional delegation championed a bill for a land swap, arguing that the new development was needed to host the 2002 Olympics.
On the 10th anniversary of the Salt Lake City Games, an exploratory committee was formed to consider a bid for the 2022 or 2026 Winter Games. Whether the drive to attract the Games will again become a factor in the battle over skiing and public lands is worrying to environmentalists.
“There is little doubt in my mind that these two things will be brought together, just as it was in the case of Snowbasin,” said Gale Dick, a founder of Save Our Canyons, a nonprofit group whose goal is to protect the Wasatch Range. “As the night followeth the day, it is just absolutely certain that this will come to pass.”