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A DISPUTE over a cable car linking ski resorts in Utah has ignited a fierce row about protecting wild spaces.

“ONE guy called me a whore,” says Ted Wilson. “I was in a movie line one night with my wife, and this guy saw me and came over and said ‘You, my friend, you are a whore.’”

I nearly choke on my coffee. Polite and softly-spoken, Wilson isn’t the kind of man you’d expect to even say “whore”, let alone have it hurled at him in anger. Then again, the former politician is currently at the epicentre of what must be one of the fiercest debates ever to rock American skiing. Abuse comes with the territory.

A progressive, Democrat mayor of Salt Lake City from 1976 to 1985, Wilson has a strong track record of campaigning on environmental issues, yet now he is heading up SkiLink – a controversial project to connect the neighbouring ski resorts of Canyons and Solitude in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains by running a gondola through an area of government-owned wild land. Local environmental groups – and presumably the man in the queue for the cinema – think he has sold his soul to Talisker, the Canadian company that owns Canyons, but Wilson believes that, overall, the scheme will do more good than harm.

If SkiLink goes ahead, its backers hope it will be Phase One of a much larger plan that would see seven ski resorts in the Wasatch become interconnected. If that happens, Canyons will form part of the largest single ski area in North America, with approximately 20,000 acres of terrain. In theory, skiers would be able to access Deer Valley, Park City, Canyons, Solitude, Brighton, Alta and Snowbird without having to get into their cars once – an experience to rival anything offered by the interconnected ski areas of the Alps. Wilson argues the links would also mean a significant reduction in carbon emissions, as fewer people would drive from resort to resort.

But opponents of the scheme are concerned that SkiLink – and subsequent links – would change the character of several wilderness areas currently enjoyed by large numbers of backcountry skiers and snowboarders in the winter, and by mountain bikers and hikers in the summer. There are concerns, too, about how the links would work in practice: Alta and Deer Valley, for example, are skier-only resorts where snowboarders are not welcome. Detractors also say the SkiLink project, if given the green light, would set a worrying precedent. Currently it is not possible for private companies to buy publicly-owned land in the Wasatch, but if Talisker is able to circumvent that rule (as seems likely, if a bill passes Congress as expected in the coming months) then what’s to stop other companies with enough money and influence doing the same elsewhere?

Local opinion appears to be largely against the development. A recent panel discussion in Park City featuring Mike Goar, managing director of Canyons, drew over 300 people – a crowd “heavily weighted toward the SkiLink opposition movement” according to a report in the local paper, The Park Record. Yet Wilson remains convinced it is the right thing to do. He points to an economic impact study which concludes that SkiLink alone would create 500 jobs and be worth $15 million (around £10m) a year in increased revenue to the state, and to a traffic study which shows SkiLink would make a significant dent in the number of car journeys currently made by skiers.

“Cableways do have a visual impact,” he says, “but to me it’s a small trade-off for getting people out of their automobiles.”

A couple of days after meeting Wilson, I have dinner with Rick Steiner, a longtime supporter of the Save Our Canyons conservation group. Like Wilson, Steiner is a passionate backcountry skier with decades of experience in the Wasatch, but unlike Wilson he is vehemently opposed to SkiLink. He describes the argument that the gondola would reduce carbon emissions as “a bunch of smoke,” pointing out that, because a skier based at Canyons would need to take four lifts just to get to the base of the new link, they would probably be quicker to travel to Solitude by car. “As for the claim that this will create 500 new jobs,” he continues, “the seasonal help is mostly brought in from outside, so this isn’t creating Utah jobs. It’s creating tax revenue for the state, but it’s not doing much to help the local population.”

The strip of wilderness through which SkiLink would run is relatively small – only 150 feet wide and 30 acres in total. Yet its destiny could have huge implications, not only for the thousands who ski here every year and for the local economy (Utah makes over $1 billion – £672m – a year from snowsports), but for the debate on how the US should manage its remaining pockets of wild land.

Before leaving Utah I book a split-snowboard tour of the area between Canyons and Solitude with Kevin Langlois, a guide from Utah Mountain Adventures. As we ride one particularly magical pitch – a silent glade surrounded by towering evergreens, shafts of sunlight illuminating the puffs of cold-smoke powder kicked up by our turns – I ponder the SkiLink debate... then catch an edge, go flying backwards down the hill and crash head first into a tree. Good job I wore a helmet. As I sit there, stunned and seeing stars, I reflect that, in this particular case of man vs nature, there are no easy answers.