In a press conference that managed to be both monumental and anti-climactic, the managers of Utah's seven central Wasatch resorts gathered on Wednesday, March 19, 2014 to announce their mutual support for connecting all seven resorts (Snowbird, Alta, Solitude, Brighton, Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons) via lifts and a common lift ticket—a concept now being called ONE Wasatch.
It was monumental because getting seven different businesses with seven separate owners, distinct personalities and varying missions to mutually agree on anything is a difficult task, even when two of the parties aren't embroiled in a lawsuit—which two of these resorts (Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort) are. It's also the largest show of support to date for a concept that has been tossed around for at least three decades. This new approach, however, would be completed on private land and with private money, and thusly would quash the controversial SkiLink gondola, proposed over public land in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
The press conference was anti-climactic because it's still just that—a concept. In substance, this announcement offers little more than the same banter that has been tossed around for the last 30 years. There is still no timeline for when an interconnect might become a reality, and no specific lift alignments were proposed. "We don't have all the answers today," said Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty. "This is a concept that we're promoting. There will be questions that we can't answer, not because we don't want to, but because we don't have the answers."
All that aside, the announcement was a step forward in the quest to provide more than 18,000 skiable acres, 700 named runs and 100 lifts with a single lift ticket. Beyond the mere speculation of the past, this time around Ski Utah has offered potential connection zones where the connection could be completed with as few as six new chairlifts—all on private land and all funded privately.
"There's been a lot of momentum recently, in the last several years, with the Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow study, with Mountain Accord, with SkiLink which has pushed forward a lot of this conversation," says Rafferty. "There's also the component that [the resorts] are growing closer together. It wasn't that long ago that Brighton put in the Great Western chair that made it just one small ridgeline away from Park City. They've just naturally grown closer together."
To Rafferty's point, Alta and Snowbird already offers a joint pass, as do Solitude and Brighton. Alta's cat-skiing terrain practically butts up against Solitude's boundary; Deer Valley and Park City are separated only by a rope line. The proximity of the seven resorts makes the Central Wasatch the only place in North America where such a collaboration is possible.
While the concept looks great on paper, all seven resort managers and Rafferty admitted there are challenges ahead. Several of the resort managers cited the need to balance any new lift development with protecting the Salt Lake City watershed and being mindful of the needs of backcountry users. All three new connections will be subject to local, county and/or state permitting process, and all of those require public input.
By proposing it as a concept, rather pushing forward with an expansion plan, Rafferty says he hopes to open dialog. As a sign of good faith, he not only invited representatives from Save Our Canyons and the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance—two of the most vocal local opponents of any ski area expansion in the Wasatch—he also introduced them to the press and encouraged reporters to seek out their opinion. "I think it's no surprise that a concept like this isn't going have 100 percent favor," Rafferty said. "We had good conversations with [Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and Save Our Canyons] yesterday and this morning, and we're always excited and happy to have dialog."
Both Save Our Canyons and Wasatch Backcountry Alliance expressed their disapproval of the concept to the local media.
While ONE Wasatch was the conversation piece, some of the biggest take-aways were the residual effects should this concept continue to move forward. For one, it means the likely end to SkiLink. "SkiLink has been tabled. We tabled the project some time ago, specifically as we put our support in working with stakeholders in Mountain Accord," said Canyons G.M. Mike Goar. "We view this as a viable alternative, and we are supportive of this effort—finding connections that are on private land."
Mountain Accord is a cooperative between multiple vested interest groups if forging a long-term plan for the Central Wasatch.
Another side effect could be a review of Alta's skier-only policy. While Deer Valley G.M. Bob Wheaton said Deer Valley would not allow snowboarding in the foreseeable future, Onno Wieringa of Alta left the door open. "How [Alta's snowboarding policy] will be handled in the future—it's all part of our business decisions, like all of this," Wieringa said. "As the plan gets more refined, that will be one of the things that gets addressed." Under the plan outlined on the ONE Wasatch website, the connecting lifts would run from Brighton to Park City Mountain Resort, so snowboarders would not have to cross Deer Valley to get to or from Big Cottonwood Canyon; they would have to cross Alta to connect Snowbird and Solitude.
While Rafferty and the resort managers couldn't speak to lift placement, the ONE Wasatch website offers fairly specific details about the zones where there connections could potentially be made, and what permitting will be necessary. In other words, ONE Wasatch has taken the interconnect idea from speculation over something that could happen, to something that, in time, likely will. "I think you'll see all the resorts in an education and advocacy role for this concept over the next several years," says Rafferty, "until one of them decides to take that next step and move forward with one of the connection ideas."