Fact check: Can Nordic Valley build a ski resort in a roadless area?

Wednesday , July 18, 2018 - 5:15 AM

Nordic Valley’s new operator is making the rounds on both sides of the mountain to share his massive expansion plans for the humble resort.

If given the green light from the U.S. Forest Service, James Coleman of Mountain Capital Partners would take Nordic Valley from 140 acres to nearly 3,000 acres. New runs and lifts would take riders all the way to the Skyline Trail and beyond, accessing Coldwater Canyon and the North Ogden Divide. First and foremost, Coleman wants to see a gondola running from North Ogden to the Nordic Valley base.

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But getting approval from the U.S. Forest Service is going to be an uphill battle.

In talking to the public, Coleman has acknowledged some of his hurdles while downplaying others.

Much of Nordic Valley’s planned expansion, for example, lies in an inventoried roadless area. In an interview, Coleman told the Standard-Examiner inventoried roadless “is different from something actually being roadless” and that forest land surrounding Nordic Valley “didn’t actually get designated as roadless.” 

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That’s not exactly true.

“It’s the same thing, there’s no difference,” said Ogden District Ranger Sean Harwood. “There’s nothing that takes inventoried roadless to designated roadless. The ones we inventory are part of the Roadless Rule.

The Roadless Rule has been around since 2001. It’s meant to prevent fragmentation of large, public landscapes as private lands are increasingly developed and urbanized. The idea is to protect watersheds and provide refuge for sensitive species. 

“The environmental groups look at roadless as first step to wilderness so they fight really hard for those areas,” Harwood said.

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During a town hall meeting last week, Coleman also said, “You can actually build ski resorts in actual roadless” areas.

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Harwood said he wasn’t aware of any ski resorts being developed on roadless areas, at least not on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, although some ski resorts and roads might be part of the roadless inventory because they were grandfathered in.

Still, developing a new ski resort on inventoried roadless lands isn’t undoable. It just takes a lot of work and approval from the top.

“It’s not impossible to do things in roadless areas, but everything has to go through the (forest) chief — it has to go to Washington, D.C.,” Harwood said.

It would also take a public scoping and commenting process.

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Coleman said he wants to tackle his gondola to North Ogden first, with construction starting in 2020. 

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But the National Environmental Policy Act and Environmental Impact Statement processes are often time-consuming. 

“I honestly don’t think this is the cakewalk they think it’s going to be. The 2020 date is very ambitious,” Harwood said.

He pointed to the recent decision on the Three Creeks grazing project spanning Cache and Rich counties. It took the U.S. Forest Service eight years to approve. 

“There were a lot of factors that caused it to drag out that long, but range management is controversial,” Harwood said. “And this project, depending on how Nordic Valley goes about it, could be controversial.”

Nordic Valley’s developers are bound to run into issues if they want to build lifts and trails in Coldwater Canyon, too.

When Weber Pathways proposed the Bonneville Shoreline Connector Trail, the U.S. Forest Service identified a unique and sensitive plant species in the canyon, the mustard-like draba burkei. The trail had to be engineered to miss it. 

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“That population is kind of critical. We’ve never found populations that low before,” said Mike Duncan, former botanist for the Ogden Ranger District. “Removing the (Douglas) fir to create downhill runs would alter the habitat.”

There are ways to circumvent the whole process. Snowbasin’s developers were able to secure 1,377 acres of U.S. Forest Service land — without a NEPA analysis — to expand their resort as part of a land swap. But even that process took a decade’s worth of negotiations, an act of Congress and 2002 Winter Olympics pressure.

“It wasn’t one of the Forest Service’s better moments,” Harwood said. “There was a lot of controversy tied into that.”

Coleman, however, has turned to Congress to pressure U.S. Forest Service officials before. When fire danger forced the closure of his Arizona Snowbowl resort this summer, a group of 10 U.S. Representatives sent a letter to the interim Forest Service Chief urging her to reopen the mountain “immediately.”

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R) and Rep. Chris Stewart (R) were among the lawmakers who signed.

When asked about the letter earlier this month, Coleman said he wasn’t looking to lobby Congress for Nordic Valley’s expansion.

“We try to be collaborative and work together. I’ve had Forest Service permits for 20 years,” he said. “We have lots of good relationships.”

Contact reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/LeiaInTheField or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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