by Annie Gilliland
I have to be honest – as a recent transplant to Utah, I do not have a complete understanding of the complex issues surrounding Ski Link. I know that it is a proposal to connect Canyons Resort and Solitude Mountain Resort by gondola, in an attempt to limit car traffic in the Canyons area. I know that most environmentally-minded people I know are against its construction. Yesterday, I attended a student-led panel discussion on the potential impacts and benefits of Ski Link hoping to learn more.
The discussion was hosted by students and the Wallace Stegner Center at the SJ Quinney College of Law. The panel consisted of Laura Briefer, Water Resources Manager of the Salt Lake City Corporation, Jason Davis, Regional Director of Transportation for the Wasatch Front in UDOT, and Carl Fischer, Executive Director of Save Our Canyons.
The panel began by discussing transportation difficulties in the canyons. Davis explained how difficult it is to safely manage the amount of car traffic frequently on the narrow canyon roads, especially on a fresh powder day. And fewer cars would mean less greenhouse gas emissions.
Fischer weighed in to say that Save Our Canyons understands the transportation difficulties, but that people are driving into the canyons year-round. He feels that transportation systems need to function for the entire year, protect public values, serve multiple-use groups, reduce greenhouse gases, protect the land, connect population centers, and be reliable. Moving people into and throughout the canyons is therefore a complicated community issue.
Laura Briefer looks at the proposal in terms of watershed impact. She explained that the canyons provide the majority of water used in the city. She knows that with further development and climate change, the availability of the resource will become scarcer. Heavier use could degrade the water quality. Briefer strongly emphasized the need for a comprehensive decision-making process that would listen to all issues and viewpoints, letting the many diverse stakeholders have a say.
The uncertainty of a future affected by climate change makes the issue even more difficult. Whatever is done, I know that we must keep the future of land, wildlife, and people at the forefront of our thoughts. A temperature increase will lead to less water coming from the canyons. Is adding development to a shrinking resource a suitable idea at this time? How many more people would come into the canyons if Ski Link were constructed? How much more management would this extra usage require? And what would the impacts be?
Jason Davis was understandably concerned that those against the construction of Ski Link do not want to improve anything and have no interest in solving transportation problems.
Briefer answered that demand will always be increasing, anyway. Again, she stressed a broad conversation to find solutions that work for both congestion and the future of the watershed. Fischer stated his disappointment in what has happened so far very directly. He called the legislation an insult to most of us, a statement which earned cheers from the audience. He feels that there has not been a good, inclusive process of decision-making.
He pointed to the fact that wilderness bills with wide community support frequently end up going nowhere, while proposals like this, with less support, get much more traction. As someone who is admittedly not an expert on the issue, this is something in which I strongly agree with Fischer. It is disappointing and jading to watch as the concerns of many people are often pushed aside by louder, wealthier voices.
Towards the end of the discussion, Fischer asserted that Save Our Canyons will do everything they can to make sure Ski Link is not approved. Briefer asked once more for balanced conversations, explaining that stakeholder meetings have already begun. And Davis said he believes that bringing together so many different experts means that in the end, someone will come up with something better. Nothing has been decided, yet.
I tend to care more about protecting natural resources and ecosystems than expanding recreational uses anywhere. Utahns, what do you think?
Annie Gilliland is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. She is working on a fellowship with the Office of Sustainability.