To drum up support, the Utah congressional delegation and Salt Lake Olympic boosters warned lawmakers that two Olympic showcase events might be jeopardized if Congress didn't approve the exchange. "Snowbasin is slated to host the men's and women's downhill events as well as the Super G events for the 2002 Winter Games," Hansen told colleagues in September 1995. "This equal value exchange is necessary to accommodate those events."
SLOC chairman Joklik agreed, stressing the need to move fast. "Construction of the base facilities requires completion of the land exchange between the U.S. Forest [Service] and the owners of the resort," Joklik told a Senate subcommittee in November of the same year. "It is important to note these changes need to be in place well before 2002 to accommodate other international skiing events and to resolve any problems prior to die Olympic Games."
If Utah has the Greatest Snow on Earth, as the state brags, then this was the greatest snow job on earth. Snowbasin didn't need 1,320 acres of national forest land for the Olympics. It required perhaps 100 acres at most. That would have been plenty for day lodges, service buildings, parking lots and viewing stands. If past Olympic practice had been followed, no land swap would have been necessary at all. In 1960, when Squaw Valley, Calif., hosted the Winter Games, the Forest Service granted a special-use permit allowing the Olympics to be held on national forest land.
Holding, though, had something going for him more potent than precedent. He had access. In addition to helpful lawmakers Holding got an assist from elsewhere in Washington, from a leading Forest Service officer, Gray Reynolds. A former chief forester in Utah, Reynolds, a deputy director of the Forest Service, took on the task of drafting crucial sections of the legislation.
On Nov. 12, 1996, President Clinton signed the Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Management Act expanding national parks and safeguarding other natural resources, a move the President said would "put nature within reach of millions of families." Clinton pointed to die Presidio in San Francisco, Sterling Forest on the New York-New Jersey border and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas as lands to be preserved or restored. Clinton made no mention of section 304 of the act, which ordered the Forest Service to carry out the Snowbasin land exchange "without delay." After a decade Earl Holding finally had the land for his future development—courtesy of the Olympics.
Four months later, in February 1997, Reynolds retired from the Forest Service, and shortly thereafter he went to work for Holding as general manager of Snow-basin. His job was to develop the resort that had been made possible by the land-exchange bill he had helped draft. Upon hiring Reynolds, Holding made one of his rare public comments, saying of his new general manager, "He's a bright, intelligent, well-educated man. He'll really fit our outfit extremely well."
The 1,378 acres Holding received—the area had grown slightly—has glorious views of both mountains and valleys. It is marked by great stands of fir, rugged outcroppings and myriad trails that wind through trees, past ponds and onto bluffs overlooking the bucolic farm valley below. Here will eventually rise luxury homes, lodges, restaurants, riding trails, a golf course and who knows what else. No doubt the world attention that will be showered on Snowbasin during the Olympics will do much to enhance its value.
The federal legislation required Holding to trade land "of approximate equal value" for this choice piece of real estate. On the surface it might appear that the U.S. government got the better deal, because it acquired 11,757 acres from Holding. Taxpayers got 8.5 acres for every one acre they gave up. However, a close inspection of the land tells another story.
Let's start with Jebo Creek, one of the 21 properties in northern Utah that Holding transferred to the Forest Service. It's a 1,920-acre parcel in one of the state's remotest corners, the high plains country some 100 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, near the Idaho border. While the land around Snowbasin has long been popular with outdoorsmen from nearby Ogden, Jebo Creek draws a different crowd—cattle.
Stuart Wamsley, whose wife's family owned the land for decades before selling to Holding, says the Forest Service now owns prime grazing property. Wamsley describes it as a "right beautiful piece of land." We'll have to take his word for it. The place is so isolated, there's not a paved road into it. Although ownership changed, nothing much else did. Cattle still graze there, as they have for years, now as guests of federal taxpayers.