One Wasatch

With global warming comes the rising of the snow line here in Utah. While snow will likely keep falling throughout our lifetimes, the elevation at which it remains on the ground in Utah is likely to rise permanently. We’re in a desert here after all, and snow doesn’t like the desert very much. This season has shown us what the future could look like for the foreseeable future: one has to drive a substantial distance up any Central Wasatch canyon to actually reach snow. Recent years have offered similar conditions.

A raised snow line is convenient for those who dislike shoveling snow off their driveways. It is inconvenient for those who like to recreate on snow, as their ability to spread out becomes hampered. As the remaining snow is found only at higher elevations, available snow recreation acreage diminishes at an accelerated rate. That’s because a conical shaped mountain offers the greatest acreage at its base, and offers the least as one nears the summit. See picture.

The side view of a potential future for SLC residents. The entire One Wasatch picture rests on a bed of money. You noticed.

Artist rendering of the side view of a potential future for SLC residents. The entire One Wasatch picture rests on a bed of money. You noticed.

Since it’s a reasonably applicable metaphor, picture a sinking pirate ship from the old days. Imagine that, in a huge and rare display of magnanimity, all the people have made it off the boat onto another pirate vessel. As the boat sinks, all the rats – known to commonly infest ships of old – scurry to the end of the ship that remains above water. This effect is obvious, because rats don’t like to drown any more than people do.

As the ship continues slowly sinking, there is less and less of it above water upon which to cling for life. Not only is there a tremendous decrease in deck space as compared to a fully floating ship, but now every single rat is clinging for life in this decreased space. Life, short and tenuous though the rats sense it is, very soon becomes pretty uncomfortable. It’s crowded, tempers are flaring, no single rat can get a good selfie picture because there are 45 other rats in the picture, etc. You know, real world concerns here. Death is imminent.

Now imagine that there was one final life boat left on this sinking ship. Some of the rats eye it up and crawl inside, intent on salvation. Suddenly a few pirates burst on the scene, dump all the rats out of this last boat, jump in, and row away. Now all the rats are piled deep upon one another as the last bit of the sinking ship finally submerges. They let go and swim to their doom, one by one, as land is too far away to reach.

And thus it is with the Wasatch. We the people watch as Mother Nature decreases the available amount of snow recreation acreage. Maybe next year will be better, and there will be more low elevation snow. This doesn’t matter however, because the global warming trend is clear, and it’s here. It’s not going away.

A mild exaggeration of the One Wasatch concept.

There are a few maps out there which depict the changes the One Wasatch concept will embody in the Central Wasatch. I drew a very simple map, to drive the main point home; this is a mild exaggeration of the One Wasatch concept. Obviously ringed by a bed of money, two lines depict the Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon roads, a relatively high snow line is indicated by the giant circle, above which the resorts desire to call everything ‘OURS,’ leaving everything else below as YOURS.

Adding insult to this damage, ski corporations step in to reduce the acreage even further via the ‘One Wasatch’ measure. This would remove more real estate from the available public recreation lands, upon which the resorts would build out chairlift systems to connect one ‘barely profitable’ ski area to another.

I bring up the ‘barely profitable’ angle because it’s a term that’s commonly bandied about when ski area executives want something. A few years back, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, known as JHMR, needed a new tram. The old one had provided service for 40 years or so, some new and very expensive condos were going in, and it just wouldn’t do to have an old tram as the backdrop to this egregiously priced real estate. (Keep in mind that the condos go for 7 figures, not 6.)

So JHMR attempted to get state funding from Wyoming to help pay for the tram, claiming they were barely profitable. I laugh to myself every time I remember that the state shot them down. The last of the old West, indeed! In the end, JHMR got the tram built just fine without state funding. And last I checked, they haven’t missed any seasons operating as a going concern. As further fodder, note that some affordable housing units went up around that time on the far side of the JHMR parking lot, constructed on land valued at nearly $1,000,000 an acre.

Closer to home, the same trick (a wolf in sheep’s clothing) is used to sway votes, Politicians Involved in Making Proper Decisions (aka, PIMP’D), and public opinion. Here is one among many phrases to watch for: “We’re ‘barely profitable,’ a lift system that interconnects various struggling resorts is the answer.” This was one aspect of the logic I saw used to justify the Ski Link proposal, which, with much fuss and public outcry, was finally shot down last year.

The theme of Ski Link was thus: We take your public land from you and sell it to a foreign company, who will then charge you to use this land. This is good for us, the ski areas involved, as well as the politicians we feted. It is not good for you, Joe and Jane Public, and we don’t care. We have money, so please shut up. Oh, and get off our land. It was your land, but it’s ours now.

The theme of ‘One Wasatch’ is much the same, though the scope is larger by far. It will reduce the amount of snow covered land upon which the public can recreate free of charge. One Wasatch will have other obvious consequences, too. Basically, all the same ones that Ski Link would have produced, except in this case magnified by the larger number of lifts and land mass involved: watershed degradation, interference with animal habitats, not a viable transportation solution, etc.

As icing on the cake, the whole package of One Wasatch will likely be wrapped up in the ‘We’re barely profitable’ argument. ‘If we go out of business, Jobs will be Lost, and Fear will be created!’ Creating fear is how many of those in charge get things done in America these days. Creating the Fear of Fear? That’s just genius at play.

Don’t fall for this rhetoric. Utah has the #1 economy in the nation right now. If a ski area in Utah fails and closes shop, it’s extremely likely that someone somewhere will see the potential to operate it in a profitable fashion and will buy it. If not, then it shouldn’t have been in business in the first place.

Jobs, skiers, and snowboarders will simply migrate to other resorts in the meantime. That is the nature of a functioning capitalist system. It is absurd to think that if a ski and snowboard area is struggling now, building a new chairlift, shuttling riders to other resorts via chairlift, and increasing skiable acreage is somehow going to make a positive impact to the bottom line.

Another tactic I’ve heard being employed involves undercounting. The PIMP’D (aka: Politicians Involved in Making Proper Decisions) listen to people who pretend to know how many backcountry users hit the Wasatch throughout the winter. The fact is, no one knows that number. But the user numbers presented when Ski Link was on the docket were exceedingly low, by all accounts.

One way to help instill some truth and accuracy to future backcountry user numbers is to make yourself known. Join the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, among whose goals is a more accurate representation of the true number of backcountry users in the Wasatch. Join if you use the Wasatch backcountry, even if you don’t live here in Utah. Think about it; the vast majority of Utah resort skiers are from out of town, too. When ski areas present their user numbers, they’re certainly counting out-of-town visitors.

From both in and out-of-town snowshoers to skiers to splitboarders to mountaineers to sledders to hikers to snow runners to wing fliers to fat tire bike riders to winter campers to photographers to ski base jumpers to snow ballerinas to snowpeople builders to ice climbers to cross country skiers to avalanche predictors to UDOT missile launchers to snowball fighters, the number of Central Wasatch backcountry users is vast. –We are legion.–

As the snow elevation level rises and yet another threat to remaining snow covered public lands  rears its head, don’t be like a rat on a sinking ship, left with nothing.

Just as with all issues and public concerns, gather your facts and think them through to figure out what makes sense. People on both sides of this latest Wasatch snowsports issue will have much to say to try to sway your decision making. Think. Think about long term impacts and consequences, much as you do when making decisions about your personal safety. Much is at stake here, yet again.

7 Responses to “One Wasatch”

  • Well said, love the maps! I actually read the “research” documents supporting Ski Link. One that “proved” the interconnect would decrease miles driven used reference point X as a basis for measuring the decrease. Turned out that X was a projected number that would only apply if the interconnect existed. In other words, it would decrease miles driven from the increase added by the project. Look for similar circular logic from the same research company undoubtedly hired by One Wasatch.

  • J-Bo – It was an effort to ward off circular logic that led to my creation of those extremely accurate and detailed maps. Because a childlike drawing is a lot more straightforward than anything we’re likely to see out of One Wasatch participants, if Ski Link has set the precedent…

  • As a person who lives right smack at the bottom of the BCC/LCC canyons, with every molecule of my being, I do NOT want to see this happen. Every year we’ve had to hike higher and higher to access snow in the backcountry. Lately we’ve finished a few two hour hikes up BCC only to have our coveted line centerpunched by someone skiing off the top of a lift at Park City or Canyons. But that’s just one problem….

    The traffic up those canyons is something we witness as we go about our daily lives, which don’t always involve skiing. Sometimes we’re on our way out to shop for food or run errands and the line of traffic on Wasatch Blvd leading up to the canyons (especially LCC) is stretched out for a mile or more. Add to that the haze of bad air that hangs over the valley, (which is not really all cars, it’s the refineries, but that’s a whole other argument), and we have a problem. And adding three lifts is not going to solve it. If they are built, their access still involves driving up a canyon. I highly doubt that anyone is going to drive from Salt Lake all the way to Park City to access Alta, Brighton, Solitude or Snowbird. And vice versa. So it solves no transportation issue, and if it were to draw more skiers it could exacerbate the problem. I don’t actually think it is going to draw anyone.

    If anything, the term “barely profitable” should be used on this endeavor. Let’s imagine it happens. What will be the price of a day pass? Deer Valley currently charges $108 for a day pass with very few opportunities for discounts. There is no way that DV is going to want that One Pass to be less expensive – because duh! So it will have to be more than that. Now, for less than that a person can currently purchase an Alta/Snowbird day pass or a Brighton/Solitude pass. One rope drop and Deer Valley and Park City are already adjacent and navigable. I have to ask, are there that many people visiting (many who are from sea level and out of shape to boot) who can ski more than two resorts in one day? The type of person who comes to the Wasatch to ski is someone who wants to ski (because the social options are very limited). The resorts are so close together, that for a much cheaper pass and more ski hours (less lift riding) you can ski one resort every day for seven days and never ski the same place twice, all within about 30 miles. So I can’t understand, except for maybe once out of novelty, why anyone in their right mind would pay more for that than to just ski one place (or two).

    Last, but certainly not least, I would love to see an independent survey of visitors to ski resorts all over the country. Because currently the Colorado resorts are not connected, the California ones either. And Canada has at least Whistler/Blackcomb, which I heard didn’t really gain them much. But nobody is interconnected, and Europe is, but let’s just say the liability laws are a little different and it is huge. So why is it that people choose or don’t choose to ski in Utah? I doubt they are holding out for an interconnect. I would put money on the fact that, although not really true, there is an overall perception in the rest of the country that Utah is dry. Yup, most people think you can’t get a drink. Those who are in the know still get sick and tired of all the rules – no full strength tap beer, one ounce shots, Zion curtains, pubs vs. restaurants, worrying about whether or not a restaurant even has a license, etc. Navigating those rules is a chore that someone on vacation doesn’t want to handle. They are, after all, on vacation.

    So there you have it. And for those of us who actually drink the water in this watershed, we don’t want any more stuff up there at all. As was the original agreement. No more. The folks who live over in Park City/Summit county really don’t have anything to lose because they don’t drink that water. They want to build lifts over the top into our watershed.

  • Jen – Well said. Thanks for the comments! There are many aspects to the issue. Just to add a little something to what you said:

    My understanding is that, including the interconnecting chairs and others the areas desire to build (such as one right up Flagstaff – Wasatch Central Backcountry), the total lift construction number is actually nine. The first build out can be considered Phase One.

    The interconnect, if not so shoddily done as the Ski Link proposal (ie., accessed from the base, not via riding multiple other chairs first) would provide a low-level transport solution for some locals and the occasional tourist. Say you live where you do. You catch a ride with a pal to the “Other Side,” and ride DV for part of the day. You could then catch a chair to LCC, and either hitchhike or catch the bus down to (near) your house. Your friend, however, is stuck driving back, which is why it would be a low-level, impractical solution. To be a transportation solution, an interconnect must necessarily reduce traffic, not increase it or keep it the same.

    I was wondering about day pass rates as well. It’s certainly not going to be cheaper, as you note. I came up with $150. No gentle increase, but an in-your-face punch. Because great cost creates cachet. ‘Utah is more expensive than Vail. We’re going there!’ I can see the Joneses salivating to outspend each other already.

    The liability issue of interconnecting several resorts is an interesting aspect. When someone gets hurt in one resort, will they be able to sue every interconnected area as part of their recompense strategy? Probably…

    Many factors influence where people choose to ski on vacation. Since a lot of people are on a budget, vast tracts of people who ski also drive (rather than fly) out from the Midwest to do so. Utah is much further than Colorado, and has many fewer ski areas. People from the Southwest and West coast can reach California pretty easily, and there are many areas to choose from there as well. So, a tiny bit of geography working against the Utah region. We’re surrounded by competition! But I’m sure you’re right about the perception of Utah as a dry state, and most skiers don’t mind a drink or three after their turns.

    There are a lot of things that could seemingly increase Utah resort skier numbers. An interconnect doesn’t seem like one of them. But who knows? Maybe ‘The Europe of the USA’ really would have a sellable ring to it. Which would bring us right back to the original issues. See the artist renderings above. ;-)

  • Good write up. One thing that is being overlooked is that the Utah interconnect experience already exists. Ski Utah already has their interconnect tour between six of these seven resorts. Is the demand so high for this ski tour that it was determined to make a permanent version? I think not. I went on this tour when I moved to Utah seven years ago and admit that it was a fun day (not one that I have ever repeated). However some of the tourists on the tour were destroyed two resorts from the finish and forced our group to separate. There were several people from sea level and either their fitness or other factors forced them to be unable to complete the entire tour and that contributed to some of the group not enjoying their day as much as possible, and those other people that struggled putting everyone else at risk.
    I would like to see the sales numbers for the existing combination resort options available to the public (AltaBird, SolBright, and Ski Utah Interconnect), as those numbers should clearly show that this project is warranted. If the amount of sales from these combo passes are off the charts, it will support the demand for the One Wasatch project. If those numbers are small or hidden from the public for some reason, it will show there is another motive for this expansion attempt. I think that we all know that the current demand for these passes and tours that are already available to link multiple resorts are probably very, very small.

  • I think that once One Wasatch is built, the typical vacation skier will probably go to Park City on a shuttle and will not have to take a rental car up Little and Big Cottonwood canyons to get a taste of Solitude, Brighton, Alta and Snowbird. That will reduce traffic and accidents due to inexperienced drivers on steep winding roads. The few extra lifts will have NO adverse environmental effect whatsoever. This opposition is all about resentment toward lift served skiing and unreasonable fear of change.

  • Mark, The opposition might have something to do with the nature of diminishing public acreage for recreation, too. Particularly since it’s in prime, snowy country. Just a thought.

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