Is A Gondola to Delicate Arch Coming Next? (Op-Ed)

Editor’s Note: Several corrections were made to this story to improve the accuracy (I inaccurately stated UTA was more responsible for green-lighting the gondola when it was UDOT).  The article previously also indicated that Chris McCandless was the CEO of Visit Utah when he is the CEO of Visit Salt Lake. Due to the overwhelming…


Editor’s Note: Several corrections were made to this story to improve the accuracy (I inaccurately stated UTA was more responsible for green-lighting the gondola when it was UDOT).  The article previously also indicated that Chris McCandless was the CEO of Visit Utah when he is the CEO of Visit Salt Lake.

Due to the overwhelming popularity of Utah’s most iconic land feature, The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is proposing a gondola and/or four-lane highway (freeway) and ample parking right to Delicate Arch in Canyonlands National Park!

While the gondola proposal for Delicate Arch isn’t actually happening— because the U.S. National Park Service would never allow it– this is the same reasoning behind the gondola and/or 4-lane highway options proposed by and endorsed by UDOT for accommodating more visitors to Snowbird and Alta in the coming years. The only difference in offering the gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon as opposed to Delicate Arch is that the former will make a group of wealthy elites a ton of money, and Utah’s Good ‘Ol boys want it. 

Why do they say we need a gondola and/or freeway up Little Cottonwood? Because Little Cottonwood Canyon’s transportation infrastructure is too little. The canyon’s road is not big enough to accommodate all the skiers in cars who want to visit on the weekends. 

Indeed, traffic jams, road closures, inter-lodge (lock-down), and unsafe avalanche conditions plague the canyon and its visitors. After our current record-breaking 2023 snowfall season, hazardous avalanche conditions persisted and buried the road many times and people were stuck. Resorts could not be accessed. A gondola could solve all of our problems and make our wildest dreams come true, or so Gondola Works –the well-funded gondola propaganda machine would have us believe.

The fundamental gondola question is: Do more skiers and visitors need to be up the canyon? Or should we consider that perhaps the canyon and resorts should have a maximum carrying capacity for both vehicles and skiers? Arches National Park decided on a maximum carrying capacity for the park including Delicate Arch– why not do the same for our canyons?

The resorts and UDOT say we need to accommodate more skiers! 2300 more to be exact. UDOT says this in the new EIS (environment impact statement). But those who really benefit are corporate entities who currently own the land-lease rights to our public Uinta Wasatch Cache National Forest. What they forget is that this land is still our land! But of course, they will say they need more skiers because this will result in a windfall of additional earnings for them. Would they have this same view if their interest was the preservation of the wilderness and ecosystem? Of course not. 

Proposed gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon. (Image from Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon).
The proposed gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon. (Image from Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon).

They claim their objective is to reduce vehicular traffic and increase transit in the most effective manner possible. So they create a false binary: A) Road widening or B) a gondola?  Utah’s outdoor enthusiasts want a third option C) none of the above.

The best solution is clearly a more efficient bus service and better bus and transit hubs. And what might sound contrary to solving the problem: fewer parking stalls. The reduction of parking would entice skiers to use alternative transportation. Why not subsidize private shuttle services from more skiing hubs? It turns out this option is already working.

 For the past two years in an effort to offset winter canyon traffic, the CWC (the Central Wasatch Commission) has partnered with Wasatch Backcountry Alliance to provide a free Saturday backcountry ski shuttle in Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons. This will be the second consecutive year the CWC will partially fund this initiative. Why not build on this initiative by subsidizing a carpooling app and/or shuttle services that would benefit both backcountry skiers and resort skiers in picking them people up and dropping them off? If this app and service providers were subsidized $10 million per year, it would take 100 years to approach the proposed cost of the gondola. A further benefit to this option, only the skiers who want more efficient canyon transportation would pay for it, rather than Utahns who never ski. But this option is currently not on the table. Why?

The CEO of Visit Salt Lake, Chris McCandless, and developer for CW Management Corporation,  until recently, owned all of the lands to the north of La Caille, where the proposed gondola station will be located. They sold this land to Snowbird. But they still own lands where homes can be developed.

McCandless justifies the gondola plans by saying that soon there will be no way that an average Utahn will be able to visit Snowbird or Alta unless UDOT adds a high-speed gondola or a freeway, and a freeway will have a devastating impact on the canyon. Therefore we need Visit Utah, Ski Utah, and UTA (all agencies made up of non-elected leaders) to “preserve the canyon” for us. This type of reasoning suggests that we are “preserving” the wilderness area by cutting down trees and replacing them with thousands of tons of concrete and two-hundred-foot steel towers.

The Good Ol’ Boys who control Utah’s progress and development see a bright and shiny object in the Doppelmayr’s S3 Gondola. Indeed it is cool. But even if Utahns don’t want it— they want it. Ski Utah claims the gondola will “preserve Little Cottonwood Canyon for future generations.” Since when is pouring thousands of tons of concrete and adding millions of tonnes of steel “saving” anything? They want to ride it and say they did it! They made it! Despite overwhelming public opposition.

They should add to their campaign that they are also “Saving our wildlife” by offering them the added protection for animals under the 220-foot gondola towers– Bambi and his progeny will thank us for offering him the much-needed shelter. 

Utahns in the know aren’t buying Gondola Works and their propaganda. The majority of area Mayors now oppose the gondola, including the Mayor of Alta: Roger Bourke, who appeared on the Utah Stories podcast; as well as Friends of Cottonwood Canyon (who appeared on our podcast); Save Our Canyons President Carl Fisher (also who appeared on the podcast). These people, like the dozen who spoke in opposition of the gondola at the Wasatch Front Regional Council Meeting, want actual preservation of the ecosystems and ecology in the canyons.

From someone who has been skiing for forty years, Snowbird today compared to Snowbird in the late 80s and early 90s is a completely different experience. The quads are speedy, but their footprints are huge, and there are too many people on the mountain today. There is also additional risk now in crashing into or getting crashed into by other skiers (Gwyneth Paltrow demonstrated that this past winter in a legal battle she had to fight in Park City). The wilderness hasn’t been preserved. The resorts have been far less than great stewards of the environment. 

The Snowbird fortress lodge on top of Hidden Peak.
The Snowbird fortress/lodge on top of Hidden Peak.

The massive concrete fortress “lodge” resting upon the top of Hidden Peak at Snowbird has destroyed anything resembling a nature experience on top of Utah’s second-highest peak. Hiking under the tram is nothing like hiking Cecret Lake or the White Pine or Red Pine areas where there are no lift towers. Why destroy so much more of the pristine wilderness that remains in Little Cottonwood? In the name of progress? When is enough, enough?

I’ve invited Chris McCandless as well as Nathan Rafferty, CEO of Ski Utah, and Dave Fields all on the Utah Stories Podcast. They have declined to come on and answer questions. Rafferty agreed to come on, but he wanted all of my questions beforehand. I provided them to him. Rafferty didn’t like this question: 

If you believe the largest gondola in the world needs to go up the canyon that accesses the greatest snow on earth, why not a gondola to the base camp of Mount Everest? Why not a gondola to Delicate Arch? Rafferty didn’t like that question and couldn’t answer it.

Height of proposed gondola compared to the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird.
Height of the proposed gondola compared to the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird. (Image from Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon).

Still, while my opinion is extremely biased. I skied at Snowbird from age five to age twenty-one. I spent the last day of my Grandfather’s life with him skiing at Snowbird. He died on the same hill where he taught his grandkids to ski. The canyon for me, as well as thousands of others, is sacred and special: don’t ruin it.

 Still, we are open to hearing all voices on this issue. Feel free to leave your comments. Also, the backcountry and wilderness enthusiasts don’t have the deep pockets of gondola works, but we do have the ability to create a ground swell. Please share this article with a few friends if you believe we should preserve Little Cottonwood Canyons.

Watch Our Podcast Interviews Concerning the Gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon

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