Last Thursday night's forum on SkiLink hosted by the Project for Deeper Understand was thoughtful, informational and well attended. We have now heard just about every possible positioning for this over-the-mountain 11,000-foot line gondola that is "just 110 feet wide" and encompasses "only 30 acres" of federal land.
SkiLink has been proposed as a transportation alternative reducing vehicle traffic in both Parley's and Big Cottonwood canyons while improving air quality. Canyons Managing Director Mike Goar confidently stated the economic impact would be broad, creating more jobs in the industry, creating approximately 500 new jobs.
SkiLink's proponents stressed it would be an enhancement to the skier experience by increasing the amount of terrain available. The proponents also stated that Utah needs SkiLink as a differentiator to remain competitive in the industry.
To all of the above, I — and most of the people at the event — said, "We disagree."
A recent New York Times article on the subject of air pollution in the Wasatch Front noted that Salt Lake City County experienced "22 days this winter in which pollution levels exceeded federal air quality standards, compared with just one last year." How much car traffic and emissions can this ski gondola realistically mitigate during its four months of operation?
As for jobs, one gentleman observed that after the gondola's short-term construction boom, long-term employment would be seasonal, constituting roughly a dozen or so lift operators (whose pay scale isn't exactly something that provides a dramatic economic uptick). As for the anticipated additional service jobs: again a seasonal bump and one primarily benefiting resorts in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
As an avid skier and ski instructor, the idea of a slow gondola ride for more than two miles, looking at spectacular vistas and watching skiers below enjoy those same vistas, is more something out of Walt Disney World — and even at that resort they have sense enough to keep the trip short.
To the proponents of SkiLink, I suggest that if you want to truly enhance the skier experience, make the snow sports more accessible by making them more affordable. With resort lift-ticket prices increasing steadily each year, family ski outings are becoming more economically difficult, and overall we are beginning to lose an entire generation of skiers and riders.
I do want people, particularly children, to learn to ski and snowboard, to love these sports and love being outside, and to be able to keep on doing so. With the direction the industry continues to move — specifically the real-estate/resort business model — skiing and snowboarding are becoming too expensive and exclusive. And their manicured landscapes have become too manufactured, a jarring contrast to the surrounding pristine alpine beauty.
Building SkiLink sets a dangerous precedent, opening the door to other development initiatives in recreational wilderness and areas with fragile environments — not just in Utah, but also throughout the nation. This proposed use of federal and state lands puts money in the hands of very few people — namely the developer, a Canadian company.
If area resorts want to enhance the skier experience and encourage more people to get involved, perhaps a $10 million investment in accessibility that encourages and financially assists families and young people (school clubs?) to get out and play would provide a stronger return on investment. Such a move certainly would have more local support, and would turn a contentious construction proposal with questionable benefits into a laudable example of stewardship of some of the most pristine and popular public recreational land in the Wasatch Mountains.