Land use is in the news. We’ll begin where tensions are highest, Salt Lake City. It is a perfect storm of sweet backcountry access, a boom-town economy, and all the associated externalities. The New York Times ran a piece last week highlighting the region’s less than stellar air quality. To compound that issue, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, Utah was the fastest-growing state and
More people, back-to-back Covid-winters, and we all know what this simple addition problem equals: crowding.
These are not new issues in the Salt Lake Basin. Drive up Little Cottonwood or Big Cottonwood Canyons on a powder day, and unless you are a devout alpine-starter, you’re likely sitting in traffic.
Ground zero for the access debate is Little Cottonwood Canyon, where Alta and Snowbird sit ten miles up-canyon from the city. SR-210, the road whisking skiers, climbers, hikers, and urban escapees to higher ground, is an old-school sinuous canyon road. Single lanes in each direction.
Enter the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT); they are tasked with deriving a plan to relieve traffic congestion in the canyon. UDOT originally floated several ideas. They included lane widening, tolls, bussing, a train/cog railway, and a gondola/tram. They settled on either buss and road widening or the eight mile long tram.
With public comments closing earlier this month, it is safe to say stakeholders came out in earnest. The Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, a group representing local climbers, opposes UDOT’s preferred solutions, the tram or enhanced bussing, and land modifications. “Both of UDOT’s Preferred Alternatives will have unacceptable impacts to climbing resources, including the elimination of boulders, parking, and trails, as well as significant impacts to the overall climbing experience.” stated the SLCA’s public statement.
The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance presents an exhaustive position paper which you can find here. The short version renders down to this statement from the WBA, “Quite simply: Before spending more than half a billion dollars to tear up LCC to construct unproven solutions like a gondola or roadway widening, WBA is advocating that we first adequately fund programs and resources that leverage the existing infrastructure LCC has in place today in an effort to address the traffic and congestion problems. Let’s fund a canyon bus program for Big Cottonwood and LCC that will alleviate traffic issues this season!”
The costs for any of the options are eye-popping. The Desert News states $334 for enhanced bus service and road widening, $576 million for the gondola/tram, and $1.05 billion for a four-car train. (These estimates do not account for annual operating budgets for each option.)
According to the same article written last winter, Alta and Snowbird prefer the gondola/tram option. (You can find a draft EIS for the proposed projects here.)
KSL.com reports UDOT recieved 13,000 public comments. With the large volume of comments, UDOT has postponed any final decision until spring.
Across the country, a different type of land use conundrum is in play. Deep in the North Woods of Upstate New York, think Adirondacks, the town of Tupper Lake, is considering leasing the defunct “Big Tupper Ski Area”. The town foresees a multi-use winter and summer recreation area that includes backcountry skiing.
The ski area was once a local economic engine. News reports state the ski area was built and run by the town in the 1960s, with the area eventually closing in 1999. Developers currently own the land and assets.
According to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, the “town could extend the cross-country trails to the mountain; allow snowshoeing, hiking, mountain biking or backcountry skiing; or allow everything. No motorized equipment would be allowed on the property.”
For now, a legal back and forth ensues while a prime yet mostly off-limits recreation site transitions from summer to fall.
Last month, the Colorado State Supreme Court weighed in on a decade’s long case involving the death of a 12-year-old, Taft Conlin. Skiing at Vail Resorts, Conlin was killed in an inbounds avalanche. The State Supreme Court upheld a 2018 Eagle County Court ruling claiming the ski area was not at fault. Conlin’s parents appealed the 2018 decision.
Jason Belvins provides an excellent brief on the specifics of the case and highlights how confounding, in some instances, closed and open slopes can be. (The nuances involved in Conlin’s tragic death are a reminder to anyone skiing inbounds to be keyed into the potential for slides.)
The case involved how to interpret the Colorado’s Ski Safety Act. The act, first enacted in 1979, spells out the risks to inbound skiers and measures ski areas must take to ensure skier safety. This case, and some similar lawsuits over the years, pivot on interpreting the “inherent risk” of inbounds skiing in Colorado. The Colorado Ski Act details the “Inherent dangers and risks of skiing”; however, the word avalanche is not mentioned (see section 3.5).