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My view: Salt Lake skiers should be concerned about Snowbird expansion plans

Andy Hyer snowshoes in American Fork Canyon.
Andy Hyer snowshoes in American Fork Canyon.
Andy Hyer

Bob Bonar tried hard last week to make a case for Snowbird’s desired expansion into Mary Ellen Gulch of American Fork Canyon, but he unfortunately used some faulty logic in his arguments.

Part of Snowbird’s rationale is that there’s been skiing in Mary Ellen Gulch for years, so why not just a little chairlift? Yes, there has been skiing there, but only backcountry and heli skiing until Snowbird began cat skiing operations just a few years ago. And he conveniently neglected to mention that snowmobiling is very popular in AF as well. Anyone who has ever been to a ski resort would be able to tell you that a four-season resort is indeed a very different use than dispersed backcountry recreation.

Bonar points out that the land in question is but a small part of the entire American Fork watershed, so it’s OK to do additional development there because Snowbird is such a good steward of the water in Little Cottonwood Canyon. While it’s true that Salt Lake City enjoys high-quality water, that is despite the ski resorts’ impacts, not because of them. Not only does Salt Lake have an exemplary water treatment system, the Little Cottonwood water itself is naturally pure, so we have good water.

American Fork is not Little Cottonwood, and saying that “only” 2 percent of the watershed will be affected is a fallacy; watersheds don’t work on percentages, and compromising any of American Fork’s watershed presents a big risk. Given the population projections in Utah County and knowing how hard municipalities fight for every inch of their watersheds, it’s doubtful the people of American Fork would like to know that their government — the trustees of their health and safety — allowed ANY of their watershed to potentially be permanently compromised.

Bonar lists other benefits, such as a “more comprehensive water monitoring program,” but neglects to mention that more comprehensive monitoring isn’t needed if there’s not another major resort expansion in the drainage. “Safer recreation around historic mining areas” — have there been a lot of accidents associated with the mines in that area? “Better cellphone coverage” — if Snowbird doesn’t introduce thousands of tourists to that area, is there a need for better cellphone coverage? “Better avalanche control for backcountry recreation” — does that mean better avalanche control for the skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers who will no longer be allowed to use that area?

Snowbird does indeed have a long history of working with the Environmental Protection Agency, Salt Lake water, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Forest Service and the counties. It is required to do so by law. It operates on land that those entities either own or have a significant stake in, and all of those entities keep a keen eye on Snowbird’s operations and plans. Salt Lake County doesn’t bend rules to grant Snowbird’s wishes — for example, allowing deviations from established zoning variance for the new Hidden Peak restaurant — so it goes to Utah County, which has been much more compliant with Snowbird’s wishes.

Bonar complains that various entities have obfuscated the facts and created a “stormy” situation. However, much of the storminess has emanated from American Fork citizens who are opposed to Snowbird’s apparent manifest destiny to expand more deeply into the American Fork canyon.

Salt Lake County skiers should be concerned about Snowbird’s expansion plans also; the well-advertised “red snake” of canyon traffic has been a particular plague this year, and adding additional skier capacity and using the standard ski resort business model of “expand terrain and advertise the expanded terrain to lure more customers” will only add to Little Cottonwood's traffic woes and bolster resort claims that a multibillion-dollar, taxpayer-subsidized transportation system is needed to support its efforts in a flat industry.

Indeed, Snowbird’s expansion desires and the facts associated with them need to be as clear as a bluebird powder day after a storm. Let’s ensure that Snowbird doesn’t create the need for orange fog discs.

Tom Diegel is the vice president of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and a small-business owner in Salt Lake City.