In a state rife with land disputes, few are as polarizing as the one regarding SkiLink, a proposed transit lift between Canyons and Solitude. SkiLink is a hot-button social, environmental and economic issue for Utahns, and the divide between stakeholders is gaping. This is the second in a series of stories that will teach you everything you need to know about Utah’s most controversial ski lift.
I’m standing on the ridge separating the Wasatch back from Big Cottonwood Canyon, and it's not hard to see why Andrew McLean is upset. The slope to the southwest of our ski tips is stunning. It’s dotted with a healthy mix of conifers and aspen groves, the largest Wasatch peaks tower to the south and the skiing offers undulating terrain. What has McLean upset is that these views and skiing could be obstructed in the future by SkiLink lift towers.
“What people don’t realize is we’re giving up the crown jewels of the Wasatch,” says McLean, a professional ski mountaineer and backcountry preservationist. “[SkiLink] is just 30 acres, but that’s prime property and terrain.”
Andrew McLean overlooks the backcountry where the SkiLink interconnect would be built.
McLean isn’t alone in his angst against the lift. Many backcountry skiers and snowboarders view SkiLink as the capture and privatization of public land, despite assurances by developers that the terrain beneath the lift would remain open to the public.
“The overwhelming majority of people in this valley, in Salt Lake County, want these canyons to remain as natural as possible and free from resort expansions,” says Carl Fisher, president of conservation group Save Our Canyons. “People appreciate the resorts, myself included, in their existing configuration, but we don’t want them to do additional things that infringe on other people’s experiences of this tiny range.”
If Rep. Rob Bishop’s legislation passes and Forest Service land is sold to Talisker, Canyons’ parent company, then those 30 acres of public land become private. But the worry that SkiLink will either restrict backcountry access or overcrowd popular slopes is exaggerated, according to Mike Goar, Canyons’ managing director.
“The criticism is this is a lift that will dump people into the backcountry—we don’t agree with that,” Goar says. “We’ve made changes in the alignment to where there is no ridge exit. You can only ski off the lift in developed resorts.”
Goar’s team is committed to keeping backcountry slopes open, so much so that he says Talisker and Canyons would endorse local legislation that would prevent ski run development in the future. “We’re supportive of that area along SkiLink lift remaining available only to backcountry users,” Goar says.
It’s clear that SkiLink’s only immediate infringement on backcountry terrain would be unsightly lift towers, but Goar’s guarantees of public access and no further development haven’t done much to dampen the concerns of the opposition.
“The lift towers are the crack in the dam,” Fisher says. “All you need is a little trickle of water coming out of a dam to bring the whole thing down. There’s nothing out there providing any assurance that nothing further will happen.”