In September 2021, a deal went through allowing Snowbird to quietly purchase a few acres of land near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah. The size of the land was fairly insignificant—a meager 4.86 acres. But it isn’t the size of the land that’s important—it’s the location.
The two parcels of land Snowbird bought are the exact location of the proposed Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola base station that would board skiers and snowboarders at the mouth of the canyon and shuttle them directly to Snowbird and neighboring Alta Ski Area. The whole thing has been the subject of heated controversy in Utah for the past year or more, with most people either strongly for it or vehemently against it. State officials have tried to address the tyrannical traffic that grips Little Cottonwood Canyon in the wintertime for over four years, and last year they narrowed down solutions to two options: a widened roadway with enhanced bus service, or the polemic gondola. Both options aren’t cheap by any means and would likely cost upwards of half a billion dollars. The final environmental impact statement on the issue, which would present the Utah Department of Transportation’s official recommendation to the Legislature who will ultimately pass the needed legislation to fund either project, should be released this summer, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Let’s say the gondola gets approved. This would require the state to purchase the land that the gondola’s towers and base station would sit on. The base station in question would be on State Road 210 near the entrance of the canyon. This land at the bottom of the canyon was purchased last September by LCC Base Property LLC, which, after a search of state business filings by The Salt Lake Tribune, shows its address to be the same as Snowbird’s corporate office in Holladay. Snowbird, which is owned by POWDR, one of the largest ski resort operators in North America, is one of two main beneficiaries of the gondola—the other being Alta.
Are you seeing the picture now?
That almost five acres are valued at over $2 million, according to Salt Lake County’s parcel search map. Dave Fields, Snowbird’s general manager and president, confirmed to The Salt Lake Tribune that the company did indeed purchase the land last year. He said that Snowbird bought the land to “protect the gondola’s viability as an option,” and used a different LLC to “protect the deal so it could go through.”
Prior to Snowbird’s purchase, the land was owned by Quail Run Development, an LLC owned and operated by CW Management Corp., which was founded by Chris McCandless, a former Sandy city councilman, and Wayne Niederhauser, a former Utah state senator for more than 12 years, The Tribune reports. McCandless has been public about his support for the gondola and told The Tribune that he sold the land on the condition that it be available for the gondola base station. He, like Dave Fields, believes the gondola is the best solution for the canyon’s traffic problem.
If UDOT decides to run with the gondola and it gets approved, Snowbird would sell the land to the state at cost or donate it to UDOT, according to Fields. The Tribune reports that UDOT was aware of the land sale to Snowbird, but that the sale won’t have an impact on the department’s final decision because when UDOT started its environmental impact statement, Snowbird hadn’t purchased the land yet. According to UDOT, the owners of the land “don’t really matter.”
So, was Snowbird’s purchase of the land unethical? Brad Rutledge, co-founder and board member of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, thinks so. Rutledge is quoted in an article by The Tribune saying that Snowbird’s acquisition of the land “isn’t transparent,” and “comes across as shady,” with the main reason being Snowbird’s use of a different LLC to make the purchase.
Land needed to build a gondola to Alta and Snowbird is owned by one of the gondola’s primary beneficiaries.https://t.co/kfBcqQg39c
— The Salt Lake Tribune (@sltrib) July 13, 2022
Elected officials in Salt Lake County have publicly announced their opposition against the gondola option, deeming it unnecessary, overly expensive, and an overall eyesore. Last year, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson spoke out against the gondola, calling it “absolutely wrong for this gorgeous canyon.” Last month, she attended a rally and further pushed her opinion that the gondola is not the best solution to combat the traffic issue in Little Cottonwood Canyon. On the other end of the argument, Ski Utah shared its support for the proposed gondola last September, saying:
“Ski Utah strongly supports the gondola with the La Caille base station. The future of recreating in Little Cottonwood Canyon is in your hands!”
UDOT estimates the total capital and maintenance cost estimates for each project through 2053 to be $724 million for the eight-mile-long gondola and $782 million for the widened highway and enhanced bus system. However, many critics are skeptical of those estimations and insist that either could actually end up costing much more. This is because the estimates for both were made prior to the current rate of inflation and didn’t factor in the rising cost of construction materials like steel and concrete. As history has shown, large, unique, and complex construction projects, like one in a tight canyon and pristine nature area such as Little Cottonwood, can easily run significantly over budget. When things like cost overruns, delays, inflation, or earthquake mitigation are factored in, the cost of either proposed option could run upwards of $1 billion or more—expenses that traditionally affect the state’s taxpayers directly.
Other critics are concerned that both ‘solutions’ are only short-term fixes to a long-term problem. Realistically wondering, for just how long would an enhanced highway and bus system or a shiny new gondola really keep traffic at bay? 20 years? 15? 10? Is it worth spending a potential billion dollars to band-aid an issue that will eventually reopen as another problematic and costly wound in ‘x’ amount of years? Why isn’t UDOT thinking way ahead—I’m talking 50, 75, 100 years down the line? Wouldn’t it be better to scrap the gondola and enhanced bus service options that really only bless two businesses—Snowbird and Alta—and look at the bigger picture instead?
What if, say, all of the ski areas in the Wasatch were connected into one big resort as they do over in the Alps with their several mountain, 200+ lift ski areas, where you can park at one resort or town on one side of a mountain range, like Park City, and then take chairlifts or ski runs to another resort altogether, like Alta and Snowbird? I’m no engineer—I write and I ski—but I love these canyons and these ski areas just as much as any of you do. These mountains are my home—my livelihood. They will probably be the home and livelihoods of my children and grandchildren. I want to see my lineage live and ski in a positive environment that actually supports them to do so—that is actually sustainable for them to do so, long term. So I ask you; Snowbird, Alta, UDOT, the average citizen who visits and skis in this canyon: are you really willing to fork up an unholy amount of capital and change the entire geo-scape of this canyon for a short-term benefit when the potential to ensure that every single one of our descendants from now until eternity could still get to enjoy this heaven of a place to the same extent that we do, has yet to be thoughtfully considered?