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Utah Business

The Case Against Connecting Our Ski Resorts

This is part of a two-part series debating the pros and cons of connecting our canyons. This is the article AGAINST connecting our canyons. To read the article FOR connecting our canyons click here.

When Chris Adams, a former Maine resident, set out to rediscover himself he knew he was going to need something bigger than Walden’s backyard pond, so he headed for the Rocky Mountains. “I just wanted to go skiing through the winter and figure out where I was going, what path I was on,” he says.

Initially, he thought he might end up in Denver, but he found the city too far from the slopes. He eventually settled in Utah, where he found solitary space for contemplation—and something else. “It wasn’t like all of a sudden I saw the light, it wasn’t a tangible moment,” he says. “But I moved here, and I met great people, and I was able to go skiing and hiking and rock climbing. I found this sense of happiness and contentment in my life.”

Two decades later, Adams worries about the ability of future generations to find the same peace and contemplation on the slopes as he once did. Utah’s wild places, he fears, are being converted into outdoor amusement parks—still beautiful, but no longer useful for the restorative purposes backcountry hikers and skiers seek. And after the success of the Big Five campaign, the central Wasatch Mountains with their newfound Olympic fame may be next.

The newly rebranded One Wasatch concept promises to “efficiently expand the capacity of Utah’s ski areas,” but that’s exactly what regulators, environmentalists, and skiers like Adams fear: more people in to-date undisturbed wilderness areas. Increased access to the ridge of the Wasatch Mountains, they say, could harm local water quality and jeopardize wildlife. But their concerns aren’t restricted to the natural environment—by increasing visitation, they say, Utah’s ski resorts stand to lose the very thing that made them attractive in the first place.

One Wasatch could harm our waterways

Plans to expand Utah’s ski resorts date back decades and have been unpopular in environmental circles from the start, spurring the creation of multiple organizations, including Save Our Canyons and the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, which Adams now leads.

“There is so little public land in the Central Wasatch for backcountry skiing, and that needs to be maintained,” he says. “People liken it to the Alps in Switzerland, but the Central Wasatch is a fraction of the size. It’s a very small area that already has seven ski areas, and a lot of ski areas are already private land.”

Carl Fisher, Save Our Canyons executive director, says science backs the opinion that Utah’s canyons “cannot really handle an industrialized ski complex.” Multiple government studies, he says, have concluded that increased visitation is the single greatest threat to the canyon’s natural habitat—and Salt Lake City’s water supplies.

“Every single time this comes up—and I swear it comes up every five years now—what we have heard over and over is they’re trying to market an experience [to get] more people to come to the state of Utah,” Fisher says. “But all that comes at the expense of the natural infrastructure—wildlife habitat and potentially our water supply.”

“We know the biggest risk for pollution in our watershed is development and overuse,” says Laura Briefer, who oversees the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities. Increasing the number of roads and even just people in the canyons would increase erosion, causing more dirt to wash into creeks and streams and eventually into the city’s water supply. Oil and chemicals would make their way into that runoff as well.  And where there are more people, Briefer says, there are more needs for… sanitation.

If you think about what the Jordan River looks like, Briefer says, that’s what the canyon streams would become. “The difference is those streams need to get into people’s taps, while the Jordan River doesn’t.”

Many cities, Briefer says, have simply closed their watersheds to public recreation. Salt Lake has tried to find a middle-of-the-road approach, but when she first heard about plans to interconnect Utah ski resorts she didn’t love what she saw, she says. 

“What we found was basically the entire upper end of the canyons would have been subject to development,” she says. “And along with those plans, zero acknowledgment that there would need to be significant management to mitigate risk to water supplies.”

The cost of that mitigation, Briefer says, could easily exceed $100 million. And the ski resorts, for the most part, don’t pay Salt Lake City water bills because they have their own water systems. “The people who pay for that are all of our ratepayers on the Salt Lake City system,” she says, “so there is a question of fairness. The people who are benefitting from the externality of water contamination are not the ones paying the cost.

It’s not just that degrading the canyons’ natural water quality would cost residents, Briefer says. Treating the city’s water would also become significantly riskier. “We don’t have large reservoirs to settle out all the pollutants in our watershed,” she says. “It takes less than seven hours for a drop of water at the top of the mountain to reach our treatment plant and 24 hours for it to reach a tap.” That gives the city very little chance to respond in the event of a spill, a sewage leak, or some other water emergency.

Talk of expansion in the canyon is no longer so grand as when the idea first surfaced. But even scaled-back proposals for connecting the ski resorts, Fisher says, would require miles of new lifts. And lifts, he says, will require service roads. Both lifts and roads will bring people into “places where they have not traditionally been.”

“Yes there are a lot of people hiking or skiing in a dispersed way,” he says, “but anyone who has been to a ski area knows that the intensity is very, very different.” That greater activity, in turn, disturbs and fragments wildlife habitat in an area that already has very limited habitat left due to existing development.

One Wasatch could make our mountains more crowded

Humans too will be impacted if the ski resorts expand. Adams says he fears Utahns will lose access to low-cost recreation, and to something more important—the chance to truly get away from it all by going off-grid. “It’s a big threat, not just to us backcountry skiers,” he says, “but for everybody who wants to experience solitude and reflection.”

Backcountry activities—whether hiking or skiing—are different from spending the day at a resort, Adams says. Yes, there’s the fact that you have to bring your own equipment, learn to navigate, and take responsibility for your own safety. But what the backcountry has to offer, Adams says, is the ability to “enjoy the mountains on your own terms.”

With no access to a lift, backcountry skiers enjoy the “satisfaction of earning your turns, of getting to the top of the ridge and saying, ‘wow, that was hard,’” Adams explains. “But now you’re on the ridge and it’s beautiful, and you have a perfect line of powder to ski because you earned it.”

Adams believes this sense of isolation and personal accomplishment is growing in importance in today’s high-tech world, where friends, family, and work responsibilities are always buzzing away in our pockets. Some people find relief from that in spin class or yoga, Adams says, but not everyone.

“For good or for bad, we’ve reached a point where we need to start being more thoughtful about that,” he says. “If you create a successful restaurant with a hundred seats, you aren’t obligated to double your seats because the town doubles in size.” 

And others, like Adams, feel crowding has already taken a toll on their ability to enjoy Utah’s great outdoors. Steve Smith, CEO of Finicity and a self-described “quintessential Utah guy” who owns a ranch, loves fly fishing, and snowmobiling, has run into more people than he’d like on recent excursions.

“Just this summer, when I was in the Wind River Range hiking, I couldn’t find a place to park,” he says.

But it’s not just his own family’s ability to escape that concerns him. He also worries about his company’s ongoing ability to attract and retain talent. The fact that Utah offered diverse opportunities for outdoor recreation was a key selling point, particularly in the early days of his business in the early 90s.

“We definitely used things like skiing, great winter activities, great summer activities, and just overall a great place to live and raise a family. Those were key things, Smith says. “I remember flying a number of people in and recruiting them.”

Now, with tech companies representing the state’s largest source of employment, Utah has turned a corner, Smith says. He doubts the state will ever be what it once was. Towns like Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs have appeared seemingly overnight, filling previously open spaces. Once the Wasatch Front has filled, Smith predicts, the Wasatch Back and communities like Park City, Morgan, and Heber will be next.

As these communities grow, Smith says, the need for solitude and outdoor recreation will grow with it. But that, he says, might actually be an argument in favor of expanding the resorts. His quest for a less crowded ski resort recently took him as far as Idaho, to a small resort “that is definitely not a Park City”
on the Teton range. But a massive snowfall the day before brought skiers by the droves; it took Smith an hour and a half to drive the eight miles up to the resort.

“I didn’t even know where all these people were coming from,” he says. “So on that particular day, it would have been nice if there were two resorts and we could have had more space to spread out.

“If people are generally going to be looking for more activities to disconnect and do active things, then we have to be mindful that Utah is already a draw for that. And to the extent that we can expand capacity, that’s better for the locals, who will be impacted the most because they don’t have a rental up at the resort.”

One Wasatch could overload our transportation systems

Whether generally opposed to, or supportive of, the notion of expanding Utah ski resorts, most everyone agrees on at least one point: something must be done about the traffic.

“Let’s not make Utah become the state that nobody wants to come to because you can’t get access to anything,” Smith says. “Let’s make Utah the state that has great infrastructure. That’s a little bit of having your cake and eating it too. But we’re smart here; we ought to be able to figure it out.”

Save Our Canyons, Fisher says, is also trying to be a good partner in addressing the infrastructure shortage, despite its general opposition to building more infrastructure in the canyons. Reduced traffic, he says, would be better for everyone—human or otherwise—who uses the canyons.

“Rather than clogging canyons with single-occupant vehicles, we should have full cars and more busses, we think, in these canyons,” he says. “That’s where we should really focus immediately.”

One simple solution, Fisher says, is carpooling. Some local resorts have already begun trying to incentivize larger car loads by charging parking fees according to the number of people in each car. If there are two people in a car, for example, it might cost $20 to park. But when there are four, it may only cost $5. 

“The way we disturb fewer wild areas,” he says, “is to do things in areas where we already have infrastructure. I think that we can make better utilization of carpooling and busses, and make a significant dent in the traffic issues. If we can make that access better, that should be good for business and good for the environment.”

Smith believes the parking fees—and maybe even a toll road—could be a clever solution. “If you’ve ever tried to park to get onto the ski slopes, you wish everybody would carpool,” he says. “I think fees would be appropriate. Or, frankly, grab some space where there is some space, and have some shuttle services. It’s ten minutes away, but that’s where you go and park if you’re single occupancy.”

But this needn’t come at the expense of growing Utah’s tourism industry—and its ski resorts, Smith says. “Utah by its nature is outdoorsy, because of the mountains and the lakes. We are a great outdoors kind of destination. The mistake,” he says, “would be to close off the borders and not let people in. It would be a travesty to not build the infrastructure needed to enjoy it.”

Adams, however, is unsure. “I don’t think adding a way to get more people up there faster is the way to address overcrowding,” he says. “I think that what’s going to happen is our mountains will become overwhelmed, and overcrowded, and the whole reason to be up there is going to be really impacted to the point where I don’t think Utah will be desirable to some people.”

But the entire conversation about whether and how to expand the ski resorts, Adams says, may be premature. “A big part of this that is not being discussed,” he says, “is the concept of carrying capacity. We need to understand how many people Little Cottonwood or Big Cottonwood can accommodate before the experience gets diluted to the point that no one wants to go there anymore.”

Utah ski resorts hold that there is room to expand, and Adam says they may well be right. But first, he says, he wants to see an analysis putting a number on the mountains’ overall capacity. Once that’s established, he says, everyone will have a starting point for fair, rational conversation about a difficult topic.

“When is enough, enough?” he asks. “That’s a big deal that needs to be thought through.”

Emma Penrod is a journalist based in rural Utah who covers science, technology, business and environmental health. She writes a weekly water politics newsletter at and Tweets about the latest science and industry news @EmaPen. When she's not writing, reading or researching, she's hunting sagebrush-scented air fresheners.