Beginning with his first venture, in the 1950s, a money-losing truck stop near Green River, Wyo., that he turned around, Holding has displayed a Midas touch in business dealings. One notable exception: Snowbasin, a picturesque ski area in the Wasatch Mountains 35 miles north of Salt Lake City that he bought in 1984. Long a popular destination for day trips, Snow-basin was a throwback to the time before fancy restaurants, shops and condos transformed skiing. You went to Snow-basin for one purpose: to ski. Its magnificent slope, with its breathtaking views and harrowing descent, made it a favorite of purists.
Holding had bigger plans. He wanted to expand Snowbasin into a luxurious resort that would rival Park City and Deer Valley. He envisioned palatial homes, lavish lodges, restaurants, riding trails, even a golf course, on hillsides where elk and moose roamed. There was one obstacle, though: The U.S. government owned all the land he wanted.
The U.S. Forest Service took title to the land in the 1940s after cattle ranchers nearly destroyed it through overgrazing. Erosion and landslides had dumped silt into streams, polluting tributaries supplying Ogden, 17 miles to the west. After the state condemned Ogden's water supply, the Forest Service reversed the damage. Over the decades foresters brought the mountain back to life with trees and vegetation, turning it into a mecca for outdoorsmen and wildlife. In 1985 Holding proposed a land exchange with the Forest Service, asking for 2,500 acres at the base of the mountain to develop a year-round resort. In return he would deed to the Forest Service other parcels he owned in Utah.
The Forest Service, however, opposed turning this pristine acreage into a development. Forest Service supervisor Arthur Carroll wrote Holding on May 19, 1986, "As managers of these National Forest lands, we feel it would not be prudent on our part, nor within the scope of our authority, to support the exchange of National Forest lands for commercial real estate development other than that needed to provide for downhill skiing."
The service did not entirely shut the door on an exchange. It pledged to work with Holding to negotiate a much smaller trade, of about 200 acres. That would have been more than enough for a new day lodge, restaurants and service buildings. But Holding wanted more.
Through his privately owned Sinclair, Holding countered with a proposal to develop Snowbasin as a destination resort and scaled back his request to 1,320 acres. Still, the Forest Service objected. "I cannot in good conscience dispose of public land for that purpose," Wasatch-Cache forest supervisor Dale Bosworth wrote Holding in February 1990. After more lobbying by Holding, the Forest Service agreed to increase the exchange to 700 acres. Still not enough: Holding insisted on his 1,320 acres—slightly more than two square miles.
Several years would pass before he got the opportunity he was looking for. Like Cumming and other prominent Utahans, Holding worked closely with the bid committee to bring the Olympics to Salt Lake City. He made his private jet available to the committee. Visiting IOC dignitaries stayed at his Little America Hotel while in Salt Lake.
More significant, Snowbasin was being developed as a site for skiing events, should Salt Lake win the Games. The bid committee's David Johnson wrote Marc Hodler of Switzerland, then an IOC vice president and president of the International Ski Federation, in October 1994: "Mr. Holding and his construction crews ... are committed to do as much as they can before the snow flies this year in the Snowbasin area.... We are very pleased with the enthusiasm that Mr. Holding has, not only for the project at Snowbasin, but for our Olympic bid."
Three months after the IOC selected Salt Lake City to host the Olympics, Holding made his move. Except this time he bypassed the Forest Service and went directly to his friends in Congress. In September 1995 James Hansen, a Republican representative from Utah—and, fortuitously, chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Lands—introduced the Snowbasin Land Exchange Act in the House "to authorize and direct die Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior to exchange 1,320 acres of federally owned land with-in the Wasatch National Forest ...for lands of approximately equal value owned by the Sun Valley Company. It is the intent of Congress that this exchange be effected without delay."
A month later Hatch introduced virtually identical legislation in the Senate. It was only fitting that he would be Holding's sponsor. At a public meeting in Ogden in 1990, Hatch had berated the Forest Service for dragging its feet on Holding's application. Hatch reportedly summoned a regional Forest Service official, Stan Tixier, in front of the audience to put him on the spot. Tixier recalled, "Orrin said if there was a county official that supported the decision [not to make the land swap with Holding], he would like to know who he was because he wanted to kill them." Hatch went on to label the decision "dumb-assed and bone-headed" and said anyone who felt differently was a "Neanderthal."