SNOWBIRD — Like shoppers at the start of a holiday sale, skiers lined up, three and four deep, for the rope guarding Mineral Basin to come down.

And when it did, around noon last Wednesday, they rushed to be the first to grab the fresh powder and ski the new runs.

The day had arrived. Snowbird had its hard-fought for, long-awaited addition — close to 500 acres of what skiers found is some of the best skiing at the resort.

It has always been there, on the southeastern exposure of Hidden Peak — open, nearly treeless and with a near-perfect ski line — but until last Wednesday Mineral Basin was inaccessible except to only a few skiers able to make an exhausting hike out.

"This is," said one skier waiting in the lift line, "the very type of terrain that made Snowbird and Alta famous."

Last summer, with care and planning, Snowbird built a detachable high-speed, four-passenger lift on land it privately owns. From the base of the slope, the lift rises nearly 1,500 vertical feet to a point south of the main tram unloading docks. The bowl-like area holds 15 new ski runs, ranging from intermediate to advanced.

"I guess the comment we've heard most often so far," said Bob Bonar, president and chief operating officer, "has been about how nice and consistent the pitch of the runs is from top to bottom. We'd be hard-pressed to find other runs that are this nice and this long.

"Another nice thing is that facing the way it does, Mineral Basin gets the early sun. That may not be the best thing come April, but for the rest of the season it's ideal."

Despite the fact the runs and lift are on private land, Snowbird drew opposition to its plans to build the lift. And, of course, it knew it would.

Because of it, said Bonar; the resort paid special attention to construction; it used helicopters, for example, to carry up most of the equipment needed for the lift. It also brought in several environmental specialists — "Even to go so far as to hire an archaeologist to make sure there was nothing that would be disturbed of a historical nature," he said — to ensure it was protecting the land and vegetation.

Gavin Noyes, representing Save Our Canyons, charged that Snowbird had completed no environmental study and had submitted a simple "one-and-a-half page" environmental report that a Utah County commissioner called "a sham."

Commissioner Jerry Grover, an environmental engineer by profession, questioned Noyes' charge. He said he thought "Snowbird did a very good job. It's nothing Snowbird had to show us, anyway, to get approval, so I don't know how he can make that claim. Neither of the other two commissioners has ever said anything like that to me."

According to Bonar, Snowbird conducted four separate studies that included analysis and disclosure of its environmental effects. The first came out in May 1997. The final and most comprehensive is documented in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, published in October 1998, and "is available to anyone who wants to review it" and "examines all direct, indirect and cumulative environmental impacts associated with the master plan, with a key part of that being the Mineral Basin proposal."

Part of the environmental plan involves spending more than $250,000 in revegetation and restoration of the area, which will include the planting of more than 2,000 seedlings in the basin.

"We put a lot of time and effort into doing this right. Mineral Basin is an important addition to the ski area, the first addition since the resort opened," said Bonar. "We tried to do everything we could possibly do to make this an environmentally sensitive project."

The Mineral Basin area is accessible from both the tram and the Little Cloud lift.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service approved Snowbird's master plan, which will include a lodge at the summit, a second one in the lower Gad Valley area, improvements in some lifts and the building of a new race facility.

The overall size of the summit lodge, however, was reduced from 78,000 to 50,000 square feet, and Snowbird was denied a new lift on its western boundary and a bridge over Big Emma Creek.

Opponents have 45 days from the date of the decision to appeal, which they are expected to do. The USFS then has 45 days to respond to the appeal, after which opponents then have 15 days to challenge.

The biggest challenge facing Snowbird will likely be directed at the summit lodge. SOC would like to see something smaller, in the area of 7,000 square feet.

Bernie Weingardt, supervisor for the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, however, said the size of the building was dictated by needs, "and it's better to have one building than a bunch of smaller ones scattered all around."

For now, Snowbird is enjoying what it has, which is a perfect addition to skiing.