Friends of Flagstaff Meeting Update

| April 1, 2009 | 23 Comments

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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Category: Commentary

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber, Mountain Unicycle rider and father of two very loud little girls.

Comments (23)

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  1. ron says:

    Looking forward to a posting of your photos (maps) Andrew. Seeing the map overlays last night of skiable core Wasatch terrain overtaken by lift access was a real eye opener. Once lost, forever lost.

  2. Redbeard says:

    Thanks for posting a report, I was one of 150 who did not get in the door last night.

  3. Ryan says:

    Anyone who cant see right through this… what, are they going to run a gondola up superior next?

  4. Derek says:

    Thanks for the update Andrew.

  5. Shawn Carter says:

    Andrew

    Thanks for the informative post. Unfortunately I went a little too deep into the reserves during the recent pow fest and have come down with a wicked cold. Consequently any thoughts of attending the meeting were confined to the “What could have been” department.

    What was the overall tone of the meeting? Was anything said regarding future plans for more meetings or public input?

  6. Joe Moslander says:

    I agree with Andrew’s assessment of Onno Wierenga. He was super friendly and personable but something in the back of my head told me not to trust him.

    In addition, the arguments for the ski lift were pretty weak. Existing avalanche guns can be replaced with newer models. Ski compaction is already occurring due to backcountry skiers.

    The whole feeling of the meeting was a little wierd. UDOT says they are not even looking at the ski lift as a way to prevent avalanches; their plan is to upgrade the avalanche guns in the next several years. Alta says they have no plans for a chairlift but they have gone to the trouble of surveying the chairlift site. Andrew gave a compelling presentation showing the amount of terrain that will be lost if the chairlift goes in. Rick Luskin admonished the crowd to be informed and leave nothing to chance.

    Several people mentioned that one of the best things to do was to get involved in the ongoing efforts to add to existing Wasatch wilderness areas. Additional information and a map can be found here: http://utah.sierraclub.org/wasatch_wilderness.asp

  7. Andrew says:

    Hi Shawn – I thought the overall tone of the meeting was great and should credit George Vargyas for doing an excellent job organizing it and setting the ground rules as it being a respectful, informative meeting, not a mob scene. As Onno mentioned, “When I was heading down here tonight, I thought “I bet I’m going to know 80% of the people in the room” and I do.” The Alta and backcountry community are deeply intertwined and people asked some great questions without getting nasty or personal.

  8. mark says:

    Andrew,

    Great job in the presentation last night, and nice to meet you in person, if only in passing.

    The thing that struck me about Onno’s presentation was that he began with a soft sell for something other than a gun “with all the growth in usage, we have no choice but to change our approach.” He also preached gloom and doom regarding the danger of firing live ammunition, talking about these being anti-personnel rounds.

    The questions I had were: how many people have been killed or injured by 50 years of control work using guns versus how many people have been killed by accessing the slackcountry since the canyons put the lift in on 9990? Viewed that way, Onno’s argument doesn’t seem to hold up real well.

    Excellent work by all involved putting together a valuable and educational discussion.

  9. Grizzly Adam says:

    Thanks for the report.

    Mark brings up a great point. Adding easier access to side country is usually a pretty risky prospect. Too many people think that just because a lift services an area then that area must be safe.

  10. Andrew says:

    I don’t think the resorts care all that much about what happens once you leave the gates. The Canyons is a bit different as the 9999 access is so close to home (get off the lift, ski out of bounds, ski back into the lift), that it really seems like it is part of their terrain. If somebody got killed in Scotties Bowl, I suspect Snowbird would consider it about as much their fault as dying in car wreck once you left their parking lot – a sad occurrence, but not really their problem. After all, they warned you the road was slick.

  11. mark says:

    Somewhat ironic (hypocritical?) that they’d have this attitude when one of Onno’s justifications for an “alternative approach” is not wanting someone to get injured by the artillery. Even though said person would not have been skiing at Alta or even have ridden an Alta lift.

  12. David Witherspoon says:

    Thanks for the report. Any word on whether or not full video will be available anywhere?

  13. Rob says:

    I wish Onno had stuck around to hear what you had to say. Nice job on the presentation last night.

  14. Che says:

    Great summary Andrew, and solid job last night. The meeting was a tribute to the efforts of all involved. Just the beginning.

    A few ideas:

    1. Alta has been busy planning control routes for Flagstaff. I believe Alta has this thing ready to go and will spring it this summer when no one is thinking about skiing or reading the ski blogs. Be ready.

    2. Liam gutted Alta’s argument regarding the ability to continue to use artillery. However, if at some time overshooting is no longer allowed, a lift would be an unfortunate inevitability. He clearly stated UDOT is not pushing the lift. The avalanche control ruse is a smokescreen for development.

    3. Skier compaction on south-facing slopes is another red herring. Skier compaction is best for destratifying persistent weaknesses. However, these instabilities heal quickly on sunny slopes. Instabilities at the old surface-storm snow interface or within the storm snow account for almost all the hazard above town. Only heavy skier traffic during storms would provide avalanche reduction.

    4. Any lift would be for public skiing. It is disingenuous for Alta to let people think otherwise.

    5. Any development would require leveling the top of the mountain for an unloading station, and roads and paths cut into the mountain. This is wholesale destruction and environmentally unconcscionable.

    6. The question is, as you alluded to last night, what do we want to leave the coming generations?

    “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ~ Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

  15. Andrew says:

    Hi Che – Those are all excellent points. I think if somebody like Dick Bass were doing this, he wouldn’t make any pretense at all. “Whatcha got here is a lift to some o’ da best backcountry stuff in the world! It’ll make yer socks roll up and down!” I think a big difference here is that Onno/Alta would like to do this, AND have community support for it. In that regard, I think meetings like the one we had are important as helps defray the “Oh, gosh, we didn’t know anyone really cared” attitude that some of these type of projects get rammed through with. I talked to Tom Pollard (Alta Mayor) about this issue last year and he seemed completely uniformed, which hopefully is not the case now.

    A real crusher is that so much of the “public land” in the Wasatch is actually private and Utah is a 100% pro property rights state.

  16. Jim Manos says:

    Andrew,thanks for speaking on behalf of our large b/c community. I was unable to attend as I had prior family commitments. Look forward to viewing the presentation on line.
    I think what has me feeling defeated is that this looks like another case of “the fattest wallet wins”. Let’s not forget a big part of this Utah economy is the ski industry. Wealthy ski visitors love resort expansion. Resorts aim to please. It seems all resorts strive to see what they can add every year to make them bigger & better than the next guy. I’ve watched Alta fall into this a lot in the last decade. As a result, I don’t ski there anymore unless they’re closed. Do they care? Do they hear 300 b/c skiers concerns? Do we pump money into there business? NO! I think all they care about is the -O- MIGHTY-$$$,just as any big business. They do it at the expence of anyone or any lands. So, will the lift go in? I fear just a matter of time. Not a lot of it either. A bad economy makes it easier. It’s work for someone who needs a job,and the fat cats($$)want a new ski hill. What really burns me is that they are using avi control as an excuse for this lift. I think I’d respect the Alta folks more if they would call it what it is… expansion!
    My question is can it be delayed as the expansion on Hidden Peak has been and Mineral Basin was thru pending legal action? Who can we get to fight money with money?

  17. Alta grrl says:

    Has anyone considered that part of the expansion plan might not just include a lift up Flag, but also snowboarder access to this new Alta lift company terrain? Hearing whispers that this is part of the agenda…

  18. Darlene Batatian says:

    Andrew,
    You did a great presentation. Your slides showing lift-accessed encroachment into backcountry terrain made an excellent point, very clearly presented: The Wasatch is a small range, and we’re getting crammed into an ever-shrinking area.

    1) One point that is critical, is the land ownership. Onno says “there will be lots of opportunity for public input”. But, if a lift is located on privately-owned land, rather than Federal lands, there is no trigger for NEPA, or an EIS, or in fact, any public hearings at all. Alta could ram this thing thru with no input. And, if the lands accessed by the lift are not Federal, then there is no nexus for an analysis of impacts to adjacent lands, either.

    I am not clear about the jurisdiction for lands located on the north side of SR 210. If its Salt Lake County: the Wasatch Canyons Master Plan is clear regarding NO ski area expansion. Any new area would require an amendment to the Canyons Master Plan, which would be quite an undertaking, and require public input. However that document is currently being revised and I would not be surprised if the ski resorts are lobbying hard to remove that limitation from the new plan.
    If the land is under the Town of Alta’s jurisdiction, I have no idea how the Town of Alta would handle such a proposal. FOF should consider presenting your slide show and concerns to the Mayor and planning staff.

    2) I think we all understand that avalanche control is a thin argument for this lift proposal.

    The SR 210 Transportation Study has an excellent review of avalanche control alternatives and costs. You should all read it,particularly the section on Development of Alternatives. It is available on-line at: http://www2.udot.utah.gov/main/f?p=100:pg:0::::V,T:,1720

    UDOT spends hundreds of millions of $$ annually on highway projects, and given the importance of this hwy, I think we should all collectively, along with UDOT AND the ski resorts, be lobbying hard to encourage the legislature to authorize the funds to install permanent avalanche control devices- ie, GasEx and snow sheds.

    I’ve got a 10-yr history working in SL County’s land planning arena- 7 years @ SL County’s Geologist, 3 yrs as a consultant specializing in hillside land development/site planning. I helped develop SL County’s avalanche hazard ordinance, with input from many avalanche professionals; reviewed several of the ski area master plans, and am happy to help work on behalf of FOF IF things stay civil. The safety of that road does take precedence. We are very fortunate to have Liam, his experience and judgement are excellent: the canyon safety record speaks for itself. Again, I think we should collectively get behind UDOT and push for funding for permanent control methods.

    And, in the interest of full disclosure…. I ski both Alta and the backcountry.

  19. I am not down with the lift. The backcountry needs to stay over there. Also me and the family are snowboarders. This no snowboarding crap with Alta will effectively shut down LCC to snowboarding. I know everyone hates snowboarders, but screw em. Its a family activity and I am bummed that no one mentions this when they talk about Alta expansion. My two cents.

  20. tom jungst says:

    Andrew, A very interesting perspective on raising awareness of what is one of the best back country resources in the states. As a Montana skier I have always envied the access in Utah. Due to our long approaches being a backcountry skier forces one to also become a sledhead, to the point that an entire subculture has emerged. Trailheads can be a choking experience as one dons skins and hopelessly contemplates beating skiers with 700cc rocket ships. The solitude of that quiet winter descent you, Mark and I did of the Great One years ago is a thing of the past! Our local area, Bridger Bowl added it’s first new lift in 30 years up Slashman’s, the low angle ramp to our south boundary. Formerly accessed from the base area or by ducking ropes I don’t think many people other than the Bridger patrol nervously contemplated any negative consequences. As the season ends today I think most people enjoyed the expansion and the relief on our “Ridge” that has been loved to death. Opening sidecountry also took pressure off the area but we now see much more serious terrain easily accessed with the only requirement being a transceiver (no pesky shovel or worse a partner). On a powder day we face angry lines of thousands that form before dawn. Saddle Peak is our Superior and I admit with some nostalgia to recalling 3:00 am dawn patrols with Alex; to summit at sunrise; and ski it dead center and through the cliffs. Now I look over at a dozen skiers shredding the peak all at once and it makes me shiver because any old timer can recall what it looks like when the whole peak climaxes as it has nearly every year for 33. I am being way to nostalgic and for Bridger the sidecountry just went a little further sideways but as you mentioned these are tiny mountains and ranges, made even more special when we have returned from bigger ranges of the world. What I see in the eyes of young skiers is they share the same love of the peaks and not a sense of loss that us old guys may have over area expansion. They sure can go sideways fast too!
    Still I am sorry for your loss! Guess I better get down there, make a run or two before it is gone.

  21. tom jungst says:

    I was just thinking that I have actually experienced sidecountry expansion at Alta one other time. My dad bought 10 acres west of Vail for $12,500 in about 1965, we took the small cabin, split it in two and had a place to stay with rental income. It was a short drive to Vail. In about 1969 he got an offer to “double his money” and sold it for $24,000. Later that summer the cabin was bulldozed; it sat right where the Lionshead Gondola base terminal is today. The next season with his new found wealth dad and I went to see what Dick Bass was up to in Utah, stayed up at Alta, got interlodged and one one beautiful day just my dad and I hiked to the top of Hidden Peak, had lunch and one of the deepest runs of my life. I was 12 and still remember it clearly. He was not convinced there was any opportunity to be had and on our return to Minnesota we looked at 40 acres in small valley west of Vail for the same price. He passed on it and that became Beaver Creek. He put it all in a 30 year note that just matured for a sweet $35K which almost covered the debts he left me after he died in a plane crash 5 years ago.
    Tragedy? Hardly. I will never forget that sidecountry experience though or the incredible skiing trips my dad gave me!

  22. Andrew says:

    Hi Tom! Thanks for the insights. It is interesting to see how the backcountry is suddenly becoming valuable now that people have faster and easier ways of accessing it, yet at the same time that access causes problems of its own.

    At this stage, it is hard to say what Alta is up to. On one hand, the ownership is supposedly changing over to a younger generation who is more money focused, so perhaps they do have manifest destiny expansion plans. On the other hand, maybe Alta is buying up land because they would rather own it than have somebody else own it. I could see that if a bunch of land came up for sale around our house – we’d be interested in buying as much to preserve what we have, not so much to develop it.

    Personally, I think Alta has been very good land stewards for a long time. I like how they have concentrated on upgrading what they have instead of just expanding. But, that could change.

  23. Chris Larson says:

    Andrew,

    This is really depressing, if it actually comes about. One of the (many) reasons I left Park City, and hence the Wasatch, was the fact that the PC ski areas all expanded and gobbled up the local ski touring.

    After backcountry skiing in the Wasatch for the last 30 years, to hear that Days, Silver, etc. would all turn into slack-country is just unbelievable. It would ruin the Wasatch for a lot of people, obviously.

    Keep up the good reporting work. This needs to be stopped.

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