Standing beneath the shadow of the Gate Buttress, a massive chunk of granite jutting out of the bright orange foliage of Little Cottonwood Canyon, a Lutheran, an Episcopalian, a Catholic and the Salt Lake County mayor went on a hike.
Walking up the steep switchbacks carved into the mountainside, the group stopped after a half-mile, overlooking the small parking lot at the bottom of the canyon and the adjacent neighborhoods, surrounded by the fiery maze of scrub oak and cottonwood trees.
It also happened to be the approximate eye-level of the 200-foot tall gondola tower that the Utah Department of Transportation is currently deciding whether to build, in an effort to alleviate the traffic caused by thousands of skiers driving up to Alta and Snowbird ski resorts.
“God won’t be able to build another canyon for us. We can always build another structure,” said Jenny Wilson, the Salt Lake County mayor, looking up at the granite slabs that make up the Gate Buttress that her father, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, was the first to summit.
“Harming it with permanent infrastructure that wont ever go away is tragic to me,” she said.
Organized by the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance and Save Our Canyons, two local nonprofits adamantly opposed to the project, the hike followed the Alpenbock Loop, which winds underneath some of Little Cottonwood’s iconic climbing routes and above several bouldering problems that could be destroyed if the gondola were built.
Wilson has been a staunch opponent of the gondola for a number of reasons, including its $500 million-plus price tag and the invasiveness of the project, which she says will be a “blight” on the canyon.
But on Tuesday, a different argument took shape among the faith leaders hiking in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
“You are ripping up God’s creation, and our watershed, for a luxury recreation activity. I don’t have anything against skiers, I’m glad Snowbird and Alta are there for people, but this is not a solution, it’s a shiny object,” said Jean Hill, director of the office of life, justice and peace for the Catholic Diocese in Salt Lake City.
“This is for a very limited number of people. I don’t even know what the cost to ride it is going to be, but it’s going to be prohibitive for the same people who can’t afford to ski. And this canyon is used by a lot of people who aren’t skiers,” she said.
Hill’s opposition, one that other faith leaders aligned with on Tuesday, can be boiled down to two points — equity and stewardship.
Rather than spend $500 million on a project she says will primarily serve upper-class skiers, Hill thinks that money should be used to alleviate the housing crisis, or other socioeconomic issues. “Our neighbors are hungry,” said Phyllis Spiegel, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.
“It’s taking more taxpayer funds out of more critical infrastructure needs for people who really are living on the edge in our communities,” added Hill.
And the project risks permanently marring Little Cottonwood Canyon, a landmark with vast historical, religious and spiritual significance.
“Our faith commands us to care for God’s creation. It’s in scripture,” Spiegel said.
Wilson, herself a hiker and skier whose kids have season passes to Alta, says the canyon is a place of solace for both her and constituents. She’s not against finding a solution to solve the skier traffic, she said.
But both ambitious proposals from UDOT — the widened road and the gondola, each forecasted to cost over $500 million — could make it harder for non-skiers to access the canyon while disrupting its natural splendor, she told the Deseret News.
“People find peace in natural environments. They find connections with others, they find internal reflection and they connect to a higher being. You look at the history of major religious leaders, and often they found peace and solitude and connection to their God in very natural settings — Joseph Smith went into a grove of trees,” Wilson said.
Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson has a season ski pass to Alta. Wilson was only referring to her children as season pass holders.