Grizzly Gulch- Keystone of the Wasatch

As population continues to grow along the Wasatch Front, more and more recreators in both winter and summer will continue to stress the natural resources of the Wasatch Range.  With the growth comes the inevitable consequence of traffic, parking, crowded trails and slopes for those looking for solitude in the Wasatch Range, and particularly the Cottonwood Canyons. Transportation and growth of the resorts has been hotly debated for years, with the issue of Grizzly Gulch, private property owned by Alta Ski Lifts in Little Cottonwood Canyon, coming to the forefront as of late as stakeholders look to prepare for the inevitable pressure on the Wasatch Range.

 

Sunset on the Summer Road in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah.

In 1987 I came out for a visit to Utah that would change my life. I had the impression that the state was pretty quirky and there was some good skiing to be had, but I didn’t quite understand the whole package of a very livable/affordable place to live juxtaposed so tightly against such great mountains only hours from an incredible desert. It took me another dozen years – and a great woman – to finally relocate to the Salt Lake Valley, but during that time I never forgot one of the most formative days in my life, when I went backcountry skiing in Little Cottonwood Canyon’s Grizzly Gulch.  The two or three runs that I was able to muster down Patsy Marley with my mediocre skills and terrible equipment were so memorable and transformative that I realized my life needed a lot more of that, and eventually I moved here.  The story is a familiar one to many people who now call Utah home: they come for a visit and stay for a life, and for many people Grizzly Gulch  – with its proximity to Snowbird and Alta resorts, easy access, and friendly terrain – has been the catalyst.  However, iconic Grizzly Gulch – like so many areas around the West – is in imminent danger of being developed.

The Central Wasatch is a dizzying patchwork of ownership.  The US Forest Service is of course the major player/landowner, but the ski resorts own surprising amounts of land:  Snowbird has long held a good chunk of the land across the Highway 210 from the ramparts of Mt. Superior all the way past Cardiff and Flagstaff peaks, Alta Ski Lifts (ASL) owns a large chunk of Grizzly Gulch and land over backside of the ridgeline that spills into Solitude’s terrain and along the Emma Ridges. Partly as a result of the long mining history and the resultant surface and sub-surface claims, there are remnants of land within these holdings that are still public, much of Snowbird and Alta’s developed terrain is based on long term leases on public lands, and some of those public lands leased to the resorts are for their base facilities of hotels, operations, and even parking lots.  Salt Lake City Public Utilities uses the two watersheds to deliver culinary water to not just the city itself but the entire Salt Lake Valley.  The Mountain Accord process was initiated several years ago to create a stakeholder-driven framework to guide future development and permanently fix ski resort boundaries.

Because of its keystone position at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, ASL was a critical player in this process, and has recently decided to renege on their earlier agreement in the Mountain Accord to include Grizzly Gulch in the land trades.  ASL wants to dramatically expand the footprint of their resort and put a chairlift in Grizzly Gulch.

ASL – like all LCC users – is frustrated by the regular winter weekend red snake of traffic.  As a result, ASL has long made it known that they need better traffic solutions, and they decided that their preferred solution was a connection to Big Cottonwood Canyon, which conveniently also allowed access to many more hotel beds.  They were willing to keep Grizzly Gulch undeveloped if their demands were met. Another part of the Mountain Accord process was to identify other possible traffic mitigation solutions and many have been discussed and researched, and in fact the Utah legislature recently allocated resources to UDOT to look into options such as snowsheds, high-tech tolling, and additional lanes on the canyon road, and more buses and park n rides.

However, ASL’s ownership decided that wasn’t enough and feels that the state owes their business a tunnel through the LCC/BCC ridgeline that would have a price tag of over a billion dollars.  It would likely be one of the biggest/most expensive civil projects ever in Utah in order to deflect LCC’s traffic problems into BCC  (for reference, the entire state budget is ~$15B, and the airport reconstruction is now targeted at $3.6B, which is twice the original estimate).

Mountain Accord moved forward on three fronts:

1) The Forest Service is working with the ski resorts on land swaps, so that the ski resorts own and manage their base facilities’ lands.

2) A new entity called the Central Wasatch Commission was created to work out the entire process.

3) Utah’s congressional delegation is working on putting a bill in front of Congress to codify key aspects of the deal, which would result in the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area (CWNCRA).

The CWNCRA would establish firm boundaries for the ski areas and accelerate the land exchange process between the Forest Service and ski areas.  The Forest Service understandably does not want to manage parking lots, so it’s willing to evaluate trading base area land to ASL. It’s not surprising that buildable land at the top of LCC is very valuable (single-home lots in Alta town are now going for over $1million), and for the ski resort owning versus leasing base land would create substantial value if ASL’s owners were to sell the ski area (which is the only one of the area’s seven resorts that hasn’t changed hands recently).  Additionally, the Mountain Accord/CWC would allow Alta to build another 100-unit hotel on the land being traded to them.  But apparently this significant value windfall for ASL and the state’s efforts to alleviate traffic in their canyon isn’t enough; since they haven’t been guaranteed their billion dollar tunnel, Grizzly Gulch has been taken off the negotiating table, and they are unwilling to concede on any other demands, continue to reference the many other positive aspects of the CWNCRA that have nothing to do with ASL’s involvement, and have actually started to insert the value of the mineral rights associated with some of their lands as if silver mining was still a viable option in the area.

There is a swath of aspen trees above the bottom end of the summer road (the winter trailhead) that is public land, and coincidentally is also on the direct line from ASL’s existing operations to Grizzly Gulch.  During the Mountain Accord process ASL tried to get that swath included into the land swap, but when called out they agreed to leave it out of the discussions.  Now, however, they are back to trying to get that land included in potential land trades.

Brand equity is an elusive concept that companies spend extraordinary amounts of resources to develop, and the ski industry is no exception.  “The Alta Experience” is a commonly-used term and one that ASL continues to cultivate, building on it’s 81-year history, the copious amount of powder snow that falls on their advanced terrain, their no-snowboard policy, limited grooming and summertime amusements, lack of ostentatious real estate development, and gritty accommodations and food service.  Years ago they gained notoriety for turning people away on crowded days to preserve the snow quality for the lucky ones who made it in. An important part of the Alta Experience has been the adjacent Grizzly Gulch backcountry terrain, where people can skin for a few untracked turns after dropping their groms at the resort, take their entire families for a backcountry tour in the friendly terrain, where young hucksters build kickers from mild to Chad’s Gap-wild and avalanche courses are taught, and more experienced skiers – many of whom also have ASL passes – use the area to access the more advanced terrain of Silver Fork, Days Fork, and the chutes of the infamous Wolverine Cirque. Yes, Grizzly Gulch has had ASL-based cat skiing for many years, but a couple of cat-ski runs is a far cry from a chairlift and groomers.

ASL has indicated a willingness to work with the backcountry community to allow access to the backcountry terrain beyond Grizzly Gulch, but Alta has never yet allowed in-season uphill traffic, and chairlifts to the top of Grizzly Gulch would essentially turn the Silver Fork, Twin Lakes, and Wolverine areas into resort slackcountry and create an effective One Wasatch-type connection. ASL’s announcement of its intent to pull Grizzly Gulch out of the Accord comes on the heels of also announcing that they intend to put a gondola to the top iconic Mt Baldy, ostensibly for the avalanche control, which they’ve been able to accomplish via more traditional means for the last 81 years.  It is clear that ASL is willing to test it’s coolness-capital by challenging their customers’ perception of the true meaning of The Alta Experience.  For many, however, developing Grizzly Gulch and putting a tram to the top of Mt Baldy are the antithesis of The Alta Experience. ASL employees and representatives can keep reciting the mantra of love and devotion to The Alta Experience, but those words are starting to ring hollow among the ski community that is largely watching in horror as ASL veers away from its inspiring history.

ASL has said that they are committed to accommodating the future growth of the state, portraying their plans to develop Grizzly Gulch as a duty to the state.  However, the US ski industry has stayed flat in terms of number of skier visits since 1980 even as the population has increased.   To their credit, Ski Utah has done a good job of marketing Utah as a ski destination even as lift ticket prices have risen to ever-higher levels, but annual graphs of skier days mimic the amount of snow that falls on the Alta Guard Station gauge, indicating that it’s snow, not additional terrain that draws people to ski in Utah.  Over that time, backcountry skiing (and snowboarding, and fat biking, and snowshoeing, and nordic skiing) have all dramatically increased in popularity, with businesses like Backcountry.com, Black Diamond Equipment, Voile-USA, Liberty Mountain, DPS, Petzl, and others moving to and thriving in Utah by supplying the backcountry market.

Much of that economic growth can be attributed to people having the same sort of epiphany in Grizzly Gulch that I had long ago (and clearly I was in desperate need of appropriate gear).   If ASL wants to maintain the Alta Experience for its customers and not risk losing their beloved longtime Altaholics they would be well served to act in concert with the many other Wasatch stakeholders that worked for years to come up with an accord to keep Grizzly Gulch undeveloped for their customers and the community.

 

Tom Diegel

Wasatch Backcountry Alliance

Salt Lake City

 

 

 

Dear Members & Staff of the Central Wasatch Commission:

It is my understanding that this Commission is proposing to move legislation forward to create a conservation and recreation area, adjust wilderness boundaries and authorize land trades between US Forest Service and the ski areas in the Cottonwood Canyons, exclusive of Alta Ski Area.  It is very disappointing that this commission would exclude one of the primary stakeholders and an environmental leader in the Cottonwood Canyons from this legislation because it has decided not to include its private land in Grizzly Gulch in a land exchange with the Forest Service.  Private lands that were in the proposed land exchange on the condition of connection between Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons which is not moving forward. Private lands which are within the ski area boundary and have been used for over 15 years in its Cat Skiing operation. Private lands which the ski purchased many years ago as an area in which to accommodate recreational growth

A little over a month ago, under Chairman Chris McCandless’s lead, this commission was working towards a legislative solution that recognized Alta Ski Area’s right to exclude its private lands in Grizzly Gulch from the land exchange and include Alta Ski Area’s remaining property, over 500 surface acres and 1300 acres of mineral rights in the land exchange.   This concept was discussed with and well received by members of our legislative body in Congress who stressed they can only support moving legislation forward that is supported by the four ski areas in the Cottonwood Canyons.

Unfortunately, those unhappy with Alta’s right and decision to exclude it private lands in Grizzly Gulch have become obstructive to moving a solution forward with consensus that provides wins for all stakeholders.  Instead of working together for a win-win solution, a rhetoric of half-truths and inaccurate information has been sensationalized through social media, newsletters and emails to this commission and others.

Some of the inaccurate assertions being spread include:

  • Alta is being obstructive
  • Alta has changed the rules after years of negotiations
  • At the last minute, Alta is changing the land exchange deal
  • Alta is expanding into Grizzly Gulch with sprawling development
  • Alta does not want to protect Grizzly Gulch
  • Alta has indicated they don’t need the CWC and legislation
  • The addition of a ski lift in Grizzly Gulch would detrimental to the environment and watershed
  • Alta is trying to maximize alpine development and minimize environmental protections

None of those assertions are accurate. Alta Ski Area wishes to remain in the legislation and exchange lands with the Forest Service as the other ski areas are being authorized to do.  For the past 80 years Alta Ski Area has worked with the US Forest Service and Salt City Public Utilities to provide recreational activities for visitors to Little Cottonwood Canyon while protecting the watershed and the environment.  Today we have a world class ski area with a healthy forest, vibrant wetlands and clean water.  When and if the time comes for Alta Ski Area to put a lift in Grizzly Gulch to accommodate recreational growth, best management practices will be used to minimize the impact upon the environment and it will be managed as the rest of the ski area is to protect the watershed and environment.  Alta’s mission statement is that we are in the business of providing authentic ski experiences in a natural mountain environment. We are conservationist dedicated to taking care of the environment over which we have stewardship and intend to protect, not harm our private lands in Grizzly Gulch.

I would also like to point out that many of those unhappy with Alta’s decision to exclude its private land in Grizzly Gulch from the land exchange and demanding Alta be removed from the legislation have stated the following:

  • We ardently support the current policy of controlling visitation and capacity to the Wasatch through a prohibition on additional parking.
  • We don’t need or want any more people in the Cottonwood Canyons.

Positions and policies such as these have put us in the position that we are today.  We currently have insufficient parking in the Cottonwood Canyons for the current demand.  The ski areas have invested in infrastructure to accommodate recreational growth but are not allowed to increase parking for the growth that has already come. On weekends and holidays, winter and summer, parking lots are filled, and significant numbers of people are parking on the shoulders of the highway.  In some cases, more cars are parked on the highway than in the parking lots. Instead of controlling capacity, we have created congestion and unsafe parking conditions.

The Mountain Accord process highlighted that the population on the Wasatch Front is expected to double in the next 50 years.  The State of Utah and many municipalities are promoting a healthy outdoor lifestyle as reason to move to Utah. Recently, Governor Herbert indicated that our outdoor lifestyle is one of the primary reasons that Silicon Slopes is taking root. Alta Ski Area is an advocate of planning and preparing for growth, so we can accommodate the additional recreational demand and manage its impact on the environment.  Grizzly Gulch is part of our plan to do so.

Some have suggested they cannot support Alta Ski Area trading for base area lands near Grizzly Gulch because it facilitates our ability to install a lift and provide skiing in Grizzly Gulch. Yes, having base area lands provides us additional options for putting a lift into Grizzly Gulch to accommodate recreational growth and manage its impact on the environment and watershed.  We provide recreational opportunities to up to 500,000 winter visitors annually and minimize their impact on the environment and watershed. If 500,000 more winter recreationist are expected in the next 50 years where are they going to go if we don’t increase the capacity of our ski areas. Do we want them all in the backcountry where there are no facilities to deal with human waste and their impact?

Out request is quite simple;

  • Alta requests to be treated fairly and on the same basis as the other ski areas which are exchanging land for base area land.

 

  • Alta requests this commission to respect Alta Ski Area right to exclude its private lands from the land exchange as allowed by the Mountain Accord Agreement which states that exchanging the land in Grizzly Gulch was on the condition of a connection, such as a tunnel, between Big & Little Cottonwood Canyon.

 

  • Alta Ski Area requests to remain in the legislative land exchange authorization and feel it is punitive in nature and unfair to exclude Alta Ski Area from the land exchange authorization. It does not hold us harmless if we are removed from the land exchange process.

While some suggest we need move quickly because there is an opportunity to push legislation through the lame duck portion of congress, I suggest that given the recent changes regarding UDOT’s EIS regarding transportation improvements in the Cottonwood Canyons and issues that need to be resolved regarding the land exchange process between the Forest Service and the ski areas it may be premature to introduce legislation at this time.  Rushed legislation is generally poor legislation.  In previous meetings, Chairman McCandless committed to getting it right before submitting something to congress.  Given additional time, many questions regarding the land exchange, specifically what lands will be exchanged, and their valuation can be determined.  Alta Ski Area would have time, to seek out and obtain other lands outside of the ski area boundary for exchange as requested by some individuals. If you are insistent in moving legislation forward it should be done in a way that provides flexibility to deal with the issues identified above.   As Mr. McCandless said, let’s get it right!

 

Michael R Maughan

President & General Manager

Alta Ski Area

 

2 Responses to “Grizzly Gulch- Keystone of the Wasatch”

  1. I hope Alta is being a good neighbor and steward of their private and leased holdings that no doubt have economically benefited from past and current government actions as well as actions from the citizens of UT. I’m not going to pretend that I know the nuances of how Alta could benefit from, say, hypothetically, exchanging less valuable, undevelopable land for prime, high dollar real estate that hurts access to the outdoors for citizens of UT. All I can do is hope that Alta doesn’t leverage the situation nor use undue influence by way of their deep pockets to create a situation that is disproportionately advantageous to them instead to Utah. Hopefully our politicians and government officials do a great job of balancing this situation so the citizens of UT get a fair shake, if not more, of the benefit–not a private corporation that may be able to print money.

  2. Alta’s only defense against more people in the backcountry:

    “Do we want them all in the backcountry where there are no facilities to deal with human waste and their impact?”

    What a weak attempt to try and justify them ruining the best access to backcountry terrain in the Wasatch. Id rather have every person shitting in the woods than a lift up Grizzly Gultch.

    As the article pointed out they want to build the lift and turn wolverine cirque, silver fork, days fork into their own private sidecountry. How long until someone with no training and no equipment gets hurt and then Alta tells us that they need to do avalanche control in that terrain too? It’s endless. Alta acts like all these people coming to SLC are going to descend on their ski resort and there will be madness! they don’t even allow many of those people at their resort. Get over yourselves Alta and stay out of Grizzly Gultch. You have plenty already.

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