Seven Resorts, One Wasatch


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(Photo by Conor Barry)

(Photo by Conor Barry)
(Photo by Conor Barry)

The Wasatch front has already laid claim to ‘the greatest snow on earth,’ and now it’s looking for a new title: the greatest resort in North America.
The central Wasatch ski resorts — Alta, Brighton, Canyons, Deer Valley, Snowbird, Solitude, and Park City Mountain Resort — have proposed a plan to connect the resorts and call it One Wasatch.
Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, the marketing arm of the Utah ski industry, says, “The goal is to have the Utah’s ski industry offer something unique and different … There would be nothing like this in North America.”
The concept is simple: interconnect the seven Wasatch Mountain ski resorts and their 18,000 acres of Utah’s famous skiing together to create one large resort. The reality is a little harder. To complete the massive resort, three connections will need to be put into place. The interconnecting of the resorts will start by a connecting lift between Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons. After purchasing PCMR in September, Vail Resorts announced it hopes to complete the link to Canyons in the summer of 2015.
Alta Ski Area will then have to install a lift up Grizzly Gulch, where it would connect with a Solitude Mountain Resort lift coming up Honeycomb Canyon. Two lifts would also be built in the Guardsman Pass area to connect the Big Cottonwood Canyon resorts to the Park City resorts to complete the project. Apart from the planned connection between PCMR and Canyons, no timetable is in place.
On the surface it all sounds wonderful — all seven resorts under one pass and lifts to all the runs. The proposal should also attract more skiers to the Wasatch, which would help boost Utah’s economy. Not everyone is on board, though. Potential environmental issues and the loss of recreation areas have some up in arms over the proposal. Carl Fisher, who works with Save Our Canyons, a citizen committee aimed at protecting the natural environments around the Salt Lake Valley, is less impressed with the concept.
“People value the Wasatch for the opportunities to ski the resort, but there are also hundreds of other values for why people go up into the canyons,” Fisher says. “Whether it’s another recreational pursuit or just to enjoy nature as it is, One Wasatch significantly impacts how and where people can really enjoy some of those opportunities in the Wasatch Mountains free of additional infrastructure.”
Fisher’s concerns mostly surround the additional infrastructure it will take to create the interconnecting lifts. He says natural areas will be bombarded with service roads, ski lifts, and the expansion of ski runs.
Rafferty says that’s not the case, and the One Wasatch concept could help bring additional recreation opportunities to the area. He says the majority, if not all, of the proposed connections would be built on private land already owned by the resorts, and could include an interconnecting bike route as well.
“I think it could [have] some positive effects,” Rafferty says. “The Grizzly Gulch area is kind of a junkyard. There’s a ton of old mining stuff and debris that was left from that industry, and I think they would get in and clean that up. It’s really steep and rocky over there, and I think it’s a real possibility that we would see some multi-use trails, both hiking and biking.”
The Grizzly Gulch area has caused some in the ski community to give pause to the idea of the connection, namely the backcountry skiers. If One Wasatch becomes a reality, that area will consist of ski runs accessible by lifts instead.
Rafferty says he can “empathize” with the backcountry community, but in the end it’s up to the resorts because they own the land. He says if the connections were possible without affecting any backcountry terrain, he thinks the resorts would do it.
In terms of private versus public land, Rafferty says the Grizzly Gulch connection could all be built on private land, but the lift alignment Alta wants to build goes over Forest Service land. He says Alta feels the alignment would work best from both a safety and skier perspective if it went over “about 100 feet” of U.S. Forest Service land, which requires Alta to contract with them for the proposed connection.
“[Alta is] willing to go through whatever public process needs to happen to make that a reality for them, but if they needed to, they could put it on private land,” Rafferty says.
Attempts to contact the U.S. Forest Service were not immediately returned.
Fisher, on the other hand, says the impact will be much greater, both with use of the land and water resources. He says the canyon’s watershed serves over 60 percent of the Salt Lake Valley population and the One Wasatch project will greatly affect the region’s water.
“When you cut roads and build infrastructure it has impacts on the water supply and on the streams that come down that feed the creeks in the canyons,” Fisher says. “Any roads and construction activity really degrades the quality of the water.”
Rafferty says all of the talk on the watershed has been blown out of proportion. He says there are currently more than 100 lifts in the central Wasatch that don’t negatively affect water, and the connection plans to add, at the moment, only about five more.
Fisher’s concerns aren’t just over the quality of water, though; it’s about One Wasatch proponents “overriding the authority of municipalities” in their efforts to manage the water supply.
In the end, One Wasatch is a business venture. It is seven ski resorts coming together to be able to market themselves as the largest resort in North America to bring more skiers to Utah and, likewise, to create more profit for the resorts and the state.
“The bottom line is to get people to come and enjoy the skiing in Utah,” Rafferty says. “This has been over 30 years in the making, but I think there is a lot of momentum for it right now. I think we will see it sooner [rather] than later.”
Fisher says the whole concept is an effort to try and steal skiers from California, Colorado, and other North American markets. With an eye on the all-mighty dollar, he says he’s afraid the resorts are not placing enough emphasis on the environment and the effects the connections will have on it.
“I don’t think the people that are proposing this have any regard for others that use the areas because they’re interested solely on their bottom line,” Fisher says.
Fisher says Save Our Canyons along with other organizations will continue to educate the community about their concerns over the project, but Rafferty says the resorts are continuing to push forward with making the proposal a reality.
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