Readers of our alerts have doubtless heard of Snowbird’s ambitious proposal to expand their ski terrain on the south side, the American Fork side, of the ridge, into Mineral Basin and Mary Ellen Gulch. The Forest Service has agreed to undertake a study of the environmental consequences of this proposal. We were taken aback, as we have understood that the official Forest Service Plan specifically rules out expanding ski-resort operations onto public land. The agreement to study the proposal under the provisions of the National Environmental Protection act does not imply a formal approval of the plan, as was pointed out by Forest Supervisor Brian Ferebee. But it seems that the proposal could have been rejected summarily (as we stated in a 2/25/11 letter to the Forest Supervior), and that spending the effort on an Environmental Impact Statement signals a strong leaning toward a positive outcome for Snowbird’s proposal. In the past, it has often happened that an EIS proved to be an expensive and circuitous path leading to a Forest Service decision that favors developers and is impervious to appeals according to a doctrine of “deference to the agency”, which counters objections by more or less saying that if the Forest Service says it, it must be true.
The centerpiece of Snowbird’s plan is a new tram, stretching southeastward from the terminus of the present tram on Hidden Peak to bring skiers to American Forks Twin Peak, from which they could access the terrain in Mineral Basin. Details are few and far between, but likely the terminal facility at the top of Hidden Peak would be expanded, as this has also been a long-time dream of the Snowbird folks and they have gained approval for an expansion.
The April 23 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune published an article by Bob Bonar, Snowbird’s General Manager and President. Bonar, of course, depicts his resort’s updated Master Development Plan in a very favorable light. That is his job. His article, however, raises a number of questions that are bound to trouble many friends of the Wasatch. Here are a few:
§ The article is titled “Snowbird Expansion Won’t Effect Water Quality”. First, ski area expansions outside of the SLC watershed aren’t automatically “watershed friendly”. American Fork Canyon is in Utah County’s watershed. Also, access to the newly accessible resort skiing areas will be through Little Cottonwood Canyon. More people in a canyon leads to more human impact on that watershed. Further, stating that Snowbird’s expansion won’t affect water quality is, as yet, just a hopeful assumption, not a statement of fact. It is a question that must be evaluated as rigorously as possible in the upcoming EIS.
§ The article states that Snowbird is not proposing and lifts in White Pine Canyon and that’s true enough. It goes on, however, to state that although there would be a low-capacity tram to the American Fork Twin Peaks, Snowbird would plan to limit access to White Pine Canyon. Elsewhere Bonar has said that this limit would be to an “acceptable number”. Zero is the acceptable number Save Our Canyons would like to see. Zero is also the number of lift skiers that the Forest Service found to be acceptable a decade ago when it denied the resort’s proposal for a lift called “Gad 3” that would have provided such access. Loss of backcountry terrain to resorts can’t be mitigated. It can only be prevented up front.
§ Snowbird’s proposal ignores multiple uses. Mainly other types of users compose “Utah’s Tourism Industry” than just resort patrons. These include hikers, anglers, bikers, and photographers. Resort developments affect the experiences of these other tourists. Muscle-powered backcountry skiers are continuously being marginalized by resort development while at the same time the popularity of backcountry use has exploded.
These are only a few of the impacts that require thorough study in the upcoming Environmental Impact Statement. Save Our Canyons will be following the developments of this expansion. We implore you to do the same and join us in our never ending fight to protect the wildness and beauty of the Wasatch mountains, canyons and foothills!