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SNOW JOB
Donald L. Barlett
December 10, 2001
Thanks to Utah politicians and the 2002 Olympics, a blizzard of federal money—a stunning $1.5 billion—has fallen on the state, enriching some already wealthy businessmen
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December 10, 2001

Snow Job

Thanks to Utah politicians and the 2002 Olympics, a blizzard of federal money—a stunning $1.5 billion—has fallen on the state, enriching some already wealthy businessmen

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Many of the other parcels are similarly remote. A 2,800-acre tract in Cache County is at elevations of about 9,000 feet and can be reached only by what the federal appraiser who valued the land called "unimproved trail roads." To visit another parcel in the same county, Providence Canyon, you must take a dirt road. When you get to the property—let the appraiser describe it: "This parcel, a former stone quarry, takes up the canyon bottom and both sides of the canyon.... There is not much vegetation on the parcel because of its former quarry use."

As difficult to reach as those areas are, at least you can get to them. Six parcels totaling 1,164 acres that Holding traded to the government "have no physical access," according to the federal appraisal. This is a far cry from the kind of land that Senator Hatch described to his colleagues in 1995 when he urged them to approve the exchange. "This land," said Hatch of the parcels Holding intended to trade, "possesses outstanding recreational, wildlife, mountain and access values for public use and enjoyment."

So for the land at Snowbasin that was within an hour's drive of half of Utah's population, Holding swapped land that most Utahans will never see. "What they did was trade land that could be used by people for land that can be used by animals," says Wes Odell, a Utah resident who was active in an environmental group that tried to block the land swap. One of the few properties Holding gave up that is readily accessible to people is an 847-acre tract in Ogden called Taylor Canyon, located on the other side of the mountain from Snowbasin.

Not surprisingly, the land Holding traded was of much lower value per acre than what he received. The 21 parcels he gave up had an average value of $363 an acre. The real estate tax bills on some are so low they read like a computer error: $5.25 on one 40-acre parcel last year, for example. By contrast, the Forest Service land Holding obtained was valued at $3,000 per acre. In one final touch the federal appraisal put the overall value of the land Holding exchanged at slightly more than the land he received. No problem: The Forest Service wired Holding $135,600 to cover the difference.

Holding wasn't through in Washington yet. Now that he had the Forest Service land, he looked to taxpayers to build a $15 million road through it to his ski resort. Holding had promised to pay for this road himself. In the 1980s, when Utah planned a new highway into the Ogden Valley, Holding asked the state to build it nearer Snowbasin. In return he promised to put in an access road to the ski slopes to supplement the lone existing road, a serpentine thriller completed in 1940.

The task of routing the Trappers Loop Highway (State Highway 167) closer to Snowbasin proved both challenging and costly. It's one thing to build a highway in a valley (the original plan); another to carve it out of the shifting sides of a mountain (what Holding wanted). Once the land exchange cleared Congress, a way opened for Holding to get out of his pledge to build the access road: the Olympics.

In September 1997 Bennett stitched an amendment into a Senate appropriations bill giving the Forest Service $800,000 to design the access road. Bennett said it was crucial for Utah to meet Olympic security criteria. "The safety of the athletes and the spectators will be greatly enhanced with the relief provided by this new access," said Bennett. Warning that time was running out, he said, "It is important this work commence immediately." Bennett failed to mention that the road would shave a half hour or more off the driving time between the Salt Lake airport and Holding's future resort.

By early 1998 it was dawning on folks in Utah, where newspapers had written extensively about the Snowbasin controversy, that federal taxpayers might have to foot the bill for the entire road, not only its design. To make sure Utah taxpayers weren't stuck with any part of the cost, a state legislative committee adopted a resolution barring the use of state funds for that purpose. By then Utah politicians and Olympic boosters were mounting an all-out lobbying effort for a federal appropriation. The Utah congressional delegation signed on. SLOC pushed for federal help in the press and in the halls of Congress. When Bennett visited the Winter Olympics in Nagano in February 1998, he pointed to the traffic jams on the way to the downhill venue to underscore the need for a new access road to Snowbasin. When he returned to Washington, he asked Congress to appropriate $10 million to $15 million for the road. "If we don't get that this year," he threatened, "we might as well hold the downhill in Colorado."

Again Bennett and his band of Utah lawmakers delivered—at the expense of taxpayers everywhere else. Legislation provided the money for the Forest Service to pay for the road, not the U.S. Transportation Department, which is responsible for, highway building and appropriations. What's the difference? A road built with Transportation Department funds would have required the expenditure of some Utah state money. No such matching was necessary if the Forest Service built it.

Together, Bennett's bill and the land-exchange act exempted Holding from having to come up with an environmental impact statement on the initial phase of his Snowbasin development, which included the building of the access road. Such a statement could have delayed construction until after the Olympics. Utah environmentalists were especially concerned about the waiver because the road was laid out in an area susceptible to slides.

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