The issue is not whether the proposed gondola will degrade the watershed, but whether the associated development and use will degrade the watershed.
by John deJong
Utah has the greatest snow on Earth—pure, featherlight powder. But Utah also has a dirty little secret: Not all the snow in Utah is that great. Someone forgot to tell Toronto, Canada-based luxury developer Talisker Corporation when they bought The Canyons in 2008, and subsequently, other real estate in Summit County.
Now, after sinking who knows how much into lodges and lifts, they’re stuck with a top-10 resort that has, comparatively speaking, below-average snow. Short of saying they’ve got “pretty good” snow, their whole sales shtick, from ski packages to real estate, is based on denying, evading or misrepresenting that dirty secret.
They got snookered when they bought Park West and then doubled down, overbuilding during the “just-getting-ready-to-pop” phase of the current real estate bubble. It must be quite a chore to make mortgage payments on a couple of lodges and a bunch of new ski lifts that are operating well below capacity.
Talisker’s proposed SkiLink gondola connection between The Canyons and Solitude in Big Cottonwood Canyon is a scheme to save their bacon.
That’s their problem, right? Except that their proposed solution puts the future of nearby public wilderness at risk.
For a corporation like Talisker, the impact of tens of thousands of additional skiers on Salt Lake’s water supply is what MBAs like to call an “externality.” For the citizens of Salt Lake, it’s more like an internality. That’s why we have public processes and environmental regulations. Avoiding responsibility for that “externality” is why Talisker is trying to short circuit the process.
Expansion of recreation activities in the Wasatch Front is tightly controlled by the Forest Service and Salt Lake water users. Instead of working throught the proper channels and assuring all parties that their plans will have no adverse effect on the canyons, Talisker has talked our two senators and Congressman Rob Bishop into carrying bills selling 30 acres of Forest Service land directly to Talisker. As private property, the 30 acres will be exempt from Forest Service environmental regulations.
Surprisingly, the language of Senators Hatch and Lee’s S. 1883 parrots the Economic Impact Analysis prepared by Talisker’s consultant Robert Charles Lesser & Company (RCLCO). Wait, are we surprised?
A close look at the report reveals the self-serving nature of the whole scheme. The very first page contains an important disclaimer: “Note that skier visitation projections, construction cost estimates, and incremental resort operating requirements were provided by The Canyons, while RCLCO estimated incremental consumer expenditures based on skier visitation projections.” That means that RCLCO took the mystery meat Talisker gave it, put it through a piece of sausage grinder software called IMPLAN et voila, they’ve got the numbers to prove that they are single-handedly going to save the Utah ski industry. Not to mention their asses.
Talisker claims the new lift will immediately generate 75,000 new skiers a year, doubling to 150,000 new skiers in 20 years—possibly 400,000, if SkiLink operates at capacity. I assume they’re talking “skier days,” one skier, one day. Figuring a 145-day season that works out to 500 to 1,000 or even 2,700 additional skiers in Big Cottonwood Canyon every day. Talisker doesn’t want to bear that externality and would rather foist it on other users of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
The report claims SkiLink will be responsible for 500 new jobs. Really? One gondola, 500 jobs? Oh yeah, that’s where RCLCO’s job-multipling sausage-grinder software comes in.
If you believe Talisker, SkiLink would save a million vehicle-miles per year in the Salt Lake airshed. That sounds great until you consider that approximately eight billion vehicle miles were traveled last year. Their little gondola is not such an environmental boon. More: The saved-roundtrip number is completely bogus. There are nowhere near 1,500 cars making the trip each and every day of a 145-day ski season.
Whatever the real numbers are, the fundamental issues with SkiLink are these:
• protecting our watershed from degradation from unregulated development, and
• setting a precedent of selling Forest Service land to ski resorts.
If that second second step were to be taken, it would become open season on Forest Service land. All a ski resort would have to do is cross the right politicians’ hands with silver and—no more lease hassles with the Forest Service. Snowbird could expand into White Pine and Red Pine Canyons and beyond, even American Fork to the south. Why, with an act of Congress, ski resorts could be buying wilderness and offering a real wilderness skiing experience, complete with helicopter delivery and pickup.
The issue is not whether SkiLink itself would degrade the watershed but whether the associated development and use would degrade the watershed. You’ve got to figure the impact of another 1,500 extra skiers a day at Solitude or Brighton, one way or another. Our watershed isn’t a clown bus that we can continue to pile people into.
Another reason SkiLink and any other change in skiing amenities in our watershed need a full environmental and regulatory review is the off chance that the ski industry’s fondest dreams come true. In Ski Link’s case, Talisker’s best-case scenario was an additional 400,000 skiers each year. If that’s a real possibility, then a full environmental impact statement is needed for an additional 400,000 skiers.