From a Wasatch backcountry skier’s perspective, putting a chairlift up Flagstaff Mountain would be the equivalent of having an Exxon Valdez oil spill there once a year. It would be devastating beyond words and turn the Days/Silver/Mill D zone into extended slackcountry which would be completely undesirable from a touring point of view. Currently, it is probably the biggest bang for your hiking buck with a 45 minute approach to some of the best skiing the Wasatch has to offer. Because of this, people are fired-up over the very notion of a lift even being considered and rumours, accusations and insults have already begun to fly. Of course, a set of survey stakes marking where the chair would go didn’t do much to allay fears either.
In all, I thought the meeting went really well, if for no other reason than 150-300 people showed up for it, which shows how concerned people are about the topic. The first three speakers (including me) all commented on the underlying core problem – the Wasatch Mountains have seen a vast amount of growth in the last 15 years, with much of it occurring in the last five or so years. Trailheads are filled to overflowing on a regular basis, traffic jams are common in the canyons and there’s no end in sight.
The presentations began with Liam Fitzgerald from UDOT who is in charge of keeping the road open and cars safe from avalanches in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Liam is to avalanches as Warren Buffet is to finance – level headed, tops in his profession and emotionally detached from almost anything but his job. He explained the rationale for the lift, but was also open to other options as well. A key issue of the debate is the idea that the 105 howitzer munitions may be going away, and at the same time, the Department of Homeland Security is not thrilled with the idea of firing explosive rounds over buildings and people, or having a misfire land in a neighborhood. Assuming this happens, someone asked a question about how this would effect the rest of the canyon, since miles below the Flagstaff area are also controlled with artillery. Liam paused, then said “A lot of people would be writing their Senator.” Skiing tourism is a huge deal in Utah, and if you can’t open the key roads due to safety concerns, it effects the entire state.
Onno Wieringa from Alta spoke next, and it is hard not to like this guy. That said, it is also hard to trust him as Alta has so much to gain from this chairlift and almost nothing to lose. They don’t make any money from backcountry skiers, and if anything, they are just a pain-in-the-ass to deal with as far as avalanche control goes. Onno mentioned that if Flagstaff truly was a desirable place to put a lift in, they would have done it years ago, which sounds good, except that Alta only recently acquired the land in the first place. I think it was excellent that Onno showed up, although he didn’t do much to dispel the Alta underground rumor that the lift is a “done deal.”
After I spoke (presentation photos forthcoming on straightchuter.com), Rick Luskin, who is the in-house attorney at Black Diamond was up next. Rick’s background credentials for this presentation were almost too good to be true. Before becoming an Environmental Attorney, Rick worked as a ski patroller and was involved with the Alpine Meadows (?) avalanche were a heavily skier compacted slope ripped loose and buried a base lodge, killing many people. After that, as a recently minted attorney, he was involved in a lawsuit over ski resort development where the opposing council said not to worry about issuing a restraining order to protect a meadow on a Friday, only to find out that it was bulldozed under by Monday for a golf course. Rick’s parting worlds were to the effect of “It is good to listen to people and like them, but not necessarily trust them.”
To add to all of this, the Wasatch is an unbelievable patchwork of land ownerships. In the mining era, plats were bought, sold, divided and subdivided all over the range. Some are only big enough to hold a mine shaft and others are substantial. Some have been traded off in land swaps, some have been developed and some are using the option of development as leverage something else. All of it gets covered with 500+ inches of killer powder every year.
And then there is the economy.
It should be an interesting couple of years coming up in the Wasatch.
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