Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Public Lands: Tram It All to Hell

Posted By on November 29, 2011, 7:00 PM

Forget Wall Street. It's time to Occupy the Wasatch. We're talking the ridgetop. (And, yes, your tent will probably blow away) ---

By now, many have heard of the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act. The act, sponsored by four members of Utah's Republican delegation in Washington, D.C., ultimately would hand off a 30-acre strip of national forest land between Solitude and Canyons resorts to Canadian real estate developer Talisker, which owns Canyons, to build a "transportation connection," a tram of eight-passenger gondolas, to connect the two resorts.

Called SkiLink, the project has the look and feel of a carefully orchestrated legislative "shoo-in."

The moment Talisker brought former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson on board as a government affairs director in early July 2011, lovers of protected public lands should have donned their avalanche helmets and beacons, because the snow job was about to begin. When a respected outdoorsman and genial Democratic politician goes "lobbyist" on behalf of a real estate developer, you can be sure of one thing: the economy sucks. Why else would Wilson put his legacy and reputation at risk?

Talisker claims SkiLink will connect more than 6,000 acres of skiable terrain, creating "the most unique interconnected ski network in the United States." Since some tourists are put off by Utah's "whack" drinking laws, Talisker must be hoping this novelty will help them overcome their reluctance to ski Utah.

Talisker is careful to reiterate the gondola is merely a "transportation" link, that no resort expansion is planned, that it will remain an innocuous tram in perpetuity. So how come most of us (except for Sens. Hatch and Lee and Reps. Bishop and Chaffetz) are so damned skeptical? (Jim Matheson seems to have gotten a hall pass and also is poo-pooing this plan.)

Comment boards are hyperventilating with speculation and outrage about Talisker's motives. The folks at Save Our Canyons have gone so far as to assert that local ski resorts are waging war on Wasatch backcountry while StraightChuter blogger Andrew McLean of Park City helps explain the land use controversy here and provides a glimpse of the area in question here. There is even anti-Canyons Facebook page for those whose affections have been truly alienated.

On KCPW 88.3 FM, Jennifer Napier-Pearce has been holding the feet of the major players to the fire on two of her CityViews episodes here and here. Kevin Holdsworth at the Ogden Standard Examiner looks at Talisker's transportation "smokescreen" here.

As is often the case with a carefully orchestrated "shoo in," things are happening rather quickly, which is why it's necessary for the public to get involved sooner rather than later. While Talisker folks claim the concept has been talked about for decades, Wilson only publicly and rather vaguely began floating the concept in late September, promising more details in the future. More details, including a name for the tram, did come out in mid-November when Rob Bishop introduced the legislation.

Now what remains to be seen is how much it's going to cost the public. It is "public transportation," after all. And you know that doesn't come cheap, especially when it's a gondola at 11,000 feet.

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Jerre Wroble

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