What Happened to the Interconnect?

It’s like a forgotten dream. About twenty years ago the idea of connecting the closely situated ski areas in the Wasatch was in the news so often one would have thought it was just a matter of time before the true Utah Interconnect came to be.  Now we never hear of it. What happened? Why was the vision of a seemingly attainable world renowned, mind blowing linkage between ski areas put to rest? Are there logistics which just make it impossible?

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Imagine these scenarios. A family visiting and staying in Park City, mom’s not much of a skier, dad and junior like to get after it. She takes a few runs in PC, hits Main Street to do some shopping, then heads in for the spa. The boys rally up to Jupiter, ski some pow, then drop into Big Cottonwood, beholding jagged peaks and untracked. After a few laps they find themselves in Little Cottonwood, gaping at the heart of the Wasatch before heading back to PC at the end of the day. How about Salt Lakers who usually ski or ride in Little or Big Cottonwood but have friends in from out of town? After a big dump they spend the morning showing off their usual stashes, then head over to Park City and Deer Valley for a change of pace and some ski town style.

Locals may cling to their favorites but visitors love the idea of exploring up to six ski areas through a system of interconnected lifts. This is starting to sound a little Euro, isn’t it?  Some schnitzel and vino anyone?

There could be so many people riding lifts that the slopes would actually be less crowded. Meanwhile, all of our visitors would get the feeling of being on some kind of grand tour. They’d take in the sights and flavors of all the different ski areas, which, as we all know, have very distinct personalities. It would be a true smorgasbord of ski culture that is probably unmatched anywhere.

Why did this notion fade away?  Truth is, it hasn’t.  While the idea of connecting for skiing may have once been the driving force of a Wasatch Front Interconnect the newer viewpoint is based on the idea of transportation. When I asked Nathan Rafferty, President of Ski Utah what had happened to the idea of it, he surprised me by saying, “There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not working on something that has to do with the Interconnect coming to be a reality.” He continued, “We need to improve the way people get to the mountains. You can’t keep cramming people into the canyons one person per car. The Wasatch has a unique set of circumstances. Backcountry needs to be preserved, ski areas need to be managed, there are sensitive watershed issues. If we want to maintain the quality of life we have to figure out a better way to get people in and out of the mountains.”

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The Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow is a 57 page document, basically a study and survey partnered by the State of Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City and the Forest Service.  Published in 2010 it employed a public process and was overseen by these agencies to identify issues and make recommendations concerning the rising population and the needs and strains they will place on the Wasatch Front. As stated in the report, “The concept of an aerial tram system connecting Park City to Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons received less public support (58%) than the strategies recommended here.”  It’s recommendations centered around expanding winter to year round transit in Big and Little Cottonwood, improving avalanche control plans, studying the feasibility of extending Trax to the bottom of BCC or LCC to access shuttles and buses, developing express bus service between SLC and Summit County/Park City, doing a feasibility study of a mountain rail for LCC, and looking at alternative transportation for Mill Creek Canyon.

In many ways, reading through it is a collection of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo but it’s a necessary process to identify what and how things need to be addressed in order to identify options and move forward. And to keep the public informed so they don’t feel out of the loop. Major projects involving governmental entities are almost always a painfully slow process. The report is available online at http://www.wasatchcanyons.slco.org.

The idea of connecting ski areas has definitely taken a back seat to trying to figure out how to cope with future transportation problems. The Wasatch Front population is expected to almost double in the next thirty or forty years.

These are two independent issues. The development of the lift interconnect project is the one we started talking about. That is pleasure based gratification seeking recreational fulfillment. Then, there is what most, especially our officials, see as the more important prevailing subject matter-how will the problem of a rapidly expanding population be dealt with in terms of transportation? With most of those I talked transportation issues seemed to trump the immediate ideal of an actual ski interconnect.  But that does not, and should not eliminate a close look at the viability of a lift based system. Lift developments and major transportation projects each stand alone and would happen separately anyway, it seems pointless to cloud one with the other. The road to progress will lead to moving forward on both.

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For the lift based interconnect to occur boundaries need to be opened and lifts have to be built. Duh. Some of it has already been done. Onno Wieringa, Alta’s General Manager speaks frankly, “We’ve already started- the connecting of Alta and Snowbird and the availability of a lift pass good at both ski areas-and we’re happy with the way it’s working.” For new lifts private land has to be available, or ski areas need to build on USFS land.  On Forest Service land this means getting approval through a long and drawn out process via an established set of criteria. As far as the Forest Service property goes, the level of review is affected by what degree of impact the new use will have on existing USFS land. The more impact a new use will have, the more involved the review process will be. If you look at where the logical place interconnect lifts would go, the most obvious choice in connecting Little Cottonwood to Big Cottonwood is in the Grizzly Gulch area at Alta. That land is mostly owned by Alta and is probably doable if they ever decide to do it. Over the years there has been talk about it, but it’s not in any kind of formal planning stage.

To connect Big Cottonwood to Park City land across the street from Solitude looks like the most natural path. When people go on the existing Ski Utah Interconnect tour, they typically ski down to Solitude after exiting Park City from the top of the Jupiter lift. Most of this property is a patchwork of privately owned lots and would require many discussions and negotiations to get a line where a lift could be put in. From my interviews it sounds like Solitude owns nothing in that direction. The same is true up at Brighton. Between the Brighton boundary of the Great Western Chair and Park City it’s all private land, held by a few owners.

Even if a right of way for individual lifts making the link was arranged there would still be the issue of working things out with land that is within the Salt Lake County Watershed, under the jurisdiction of Salt Lake City Public Utilities, and also dealing with public opposition. Even if those opposing are small in numbers you can bet they will be very vocal about it.  One enticement for land owners might be that would wind up with real estate that is on the ski hill, a prized and very valuable location to most homeowners.

It seems logical that individual lifts filling the spaces between ski areas would occur before any major gargantuan span was accomplished that ran all the way from Park City to Little Cottonwood. Imagine a gondola which ran 24/7 or extended hours. It could serve as legitimate transportation. The point is to save gasoline by providing the option to not drive. Telluride has a gondola which runs from the base area in the old town up and over to its Mountain Village. It’s open most of the year and runs long hours and serves as transportation for people as well as a ski lift. The transportation use of it is free of charge. In the summer it’s free for mountain bikers. It’s a good example of how something like a gondola is successful in keeping cars off the road when a direct line exists for alternative lift based transportation. Yes, a PC to LCC lift with a stop in BCC would be a huge project and have even more obstacles and complications than single lifts on private property, but in the long haul it could solve part of the transportation issue (run after ski lifts are closed for the day) and add to the skiing experience also. In the big vision of the ski interconnect this lift seems to be the one many envisioned.

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And yes, building lifts will always have opponents. We have a small mountain range with spectacular terrain which is perfectly suited for a variety of recreational activities. Much of it is under the auspices of the USFS and they have the difficult task of mediating use and conflict which occurs on these government lands. I’ve not delved into specific land use issues affecting this because the individual lifts which would most likely be built first, look like they would happen on private property and not heavily involve the Forest Service. There also exists what is known as “The Small Tracts Act” which enables the Forest Service to get rid of or obtain small pieces of land to clean up boundaries and make land tracts whole. It was used to facilitate some minor land dealings for Snowbird using Mineral Basin, and could come into play with a lift that is mostly on private property but crossed a tiny piece of USFS land.

One of these days we may well have the Wasatch Ski Resort Interconnect. But any and all development will have opposition from someone because as Steve Scheid, USFS Recreation Ranger points out, “Every piece of land is being used by someone-if there is any change of use someone wins, and someone loses.” So it’s safe to say that despite all affirmation that it is still on the radar it doesn’t look like the interconnect is happening in the near future. As Randy Doyle, GM of Brighton said, “It would be a great thing for skiing in Utah, but it has a lot of hurdles.”

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