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For the week of Feb. 23 through Feb. 29, 2000

Politicians paved way for road to Snowbasin

The Holdings wield power in Utah not at polls, but with their pocketbook


"If I have a constituent who I believe is right, I'll move heaven and earth for them."

-Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch

 

"I told them 'Get real.’ It wasn't a month later there was an investigator [from the Inspector General] in my office who said she wanted to know my qualifications for land appraisals because she was conducting an informal inquiry instigated by Hatch's office."

-Randy Welch, former Ogden district ranger


By Christopher Smith
COPYRIGHT 2000, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE

Earl HoldingWhen it comes to political supporters, Earl Holding has Utah's heavyweights clearly in his corner. Gov. Mike Leavitt, Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, Congressman Jim Hansen and former Sen. Jake Garn all have gone out of their way to help the oil, hotel and ski resort tycoon.

But when Election Day rolls around, don't expect Holding to cast a vote for any of them. He can't. Although his wife Carol owns an $800,000 house in Salt Lake City's exclusive Federal Heights neighborhood, Holding does not claim his native state as home. Instead, the couple votes from their "legal residence" near Cody, Wyo., in a precinct that is strictly for absentee ballots.

Here in Utah, the Holdings vote with their pocketbook.

From 1993 through 1998, the Holdings contributed $39,500 to the re-election campaigns or personal political action committees of Leavitt and members of Utah's congressional delegation. It was part of nearly $100,000 the couple gave to politicians during those five years, sometimes having their occupations listed simply as "motel owner" and "housewife" on campaign finance reports.

Any suggestion the Wyoming couple bought political favor from Utah politicians is dismissed by the recipients.

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The Right Thing: "If I have a constituent who I believe is right, I'll move heaven and earth for them," says Hatch. "Earl has a home here [in Utah], his offices are here, he spends a lot of time and money here so I don't buy this argument he's not a Utah constituent. I love and admire Earl and Carol, but if they were not right on this, they would not have had me working for them to get this done. I'm not going to do something I don't believe in."

What Hatch and the rest of the state's top politicians got done legislatively was something Holding claimed the Forest Service should have done administratively: swap him 1,320 acres of public land around the base of his Snowbasin Ski Area in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

"Every move I wanted to make up here at Snowbasin, we would get lip service but nothing would ever happen," Holding says. "If [Snowbasin] was the No. 1 [priority for the Forest Service], I'd hate to be on the back end of the list. It went on for at least 10 years and it never got done."

The politicking on Holding's behalf began in earnest a decade ago. A Forest Service decision to trade 200 acres—not the more than 1,300 Holding wanted and eventually got—prompted numerous calls by members of the Utah congressional delegation to top employees of the agency.

"Jake Garn called my office and I was out, so he just chewed my secretary up one side and down the other, berating her," says Stan Tixier, who at the time was the regional forester in Ogden responsible for upholding or changing the 200-acre decision. "I thought that was really crummy. She had nothing to do with it and was in tears."

Garn says it never happened.

"That would be completely out of character for me and I don't have any memory of that ever happening," the former senator, who retired in 1992, says now. "I did press the Forest Service hard because it was utterly ridiculous they wouldn't trade more [land to Holding]."

Hatch also shared Garn's dim view of the 200-acre decision and held a town meeting in Ogden in March 1990 where he called Tixier up in front of the audience to "put you on the spot." Then, the normally diplomatic senior senator launched a verbal barrage.

"Orrin said if there was a county official that supported the decision he would like to know who he was because he wanted to kill them," says Tixier. Hatch went on to label the decision "dumb-assed" and "bone-headed," and said anyone who felt differently was a "Neanderthal."

"I was clearly joking, but I should not have used that language because it was a little rougher than I intended," Hatch says today. "I was just popping off and mad because they were just jerking poor old Holding around when he was trying to do something great for the state."

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Political Pressure: Former Ogden District Ranger Randy Welsh also felt congressional heat. In 1990, he met with Snowbasin officials to discuss the market value of the public land Holding wanted. While federal appraisals put the price tag at $4 million to $6 million, Snowbasin maintained it was worth only $600,000.

"I told them 'Get real,'" says Welsh, who left the district in 1996 for a job in the regional office. "It wasn't a month later there was an investigator [from the Inspector General] in my office who said she wanted to know my qualifications for land appraisals because she was conducting an informal inquiry instigated by Hatch's office."

Hatch says he does not recall ever requesting an investigation into a Forest Service employee working on the land exchange. But he was irritated by "these federal bureaucrats who treat the land as if it was their own and look at only one side of the coin."

Tixier eventually compromised the Snowbasin exchange to 700 acres, although he felt "I was giving away quite a bit. You look at Snowbird, Alta, Brighton and Solitude, and they don't have near that many private base acres. But the message I always heard was, ‘If we make Earl mad, he'll pull out and we won't have anything up there at all.'"

It is a message that Hatch believes all Utahns should heed.

"Thank goodness we have people like the Holdings in our state who are going to do something up there we can all be very proud of," Hatch says. "We should be more grateful. He doesn't need us."

But he did need Congress.

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Storming the Hill: After Republicans won control in Congress in 1994 and Utah won the Olympics in 1995, Holding took his crusade for more acres directly to Washington.

"When it got to a point where the Olympic thing was right over the next hill….we did go to Congress to get the land trade done," acknowledges Holding.

But the Olympics and the land exchange were never inextricably tied together. When Snowbasin was designated as the downhill skiing venue for 2002, boosters and the Forest Service stressed the races could be held at the existing resort without any transfer of national forest land.

Congress never heard that fact. Instead, when Leavitt and Utah's congressional delegation made the pitch in Washington to trade away 1,320 acres of national forest to Holding, the situation they described was dire. Without congressional intervention on Holding's behalf, they claimed, Utah might not be able to host the Olympics.

"I am very pleased to present to the House the ‘2002 Winter Olympic Games Facilitation Act,' a measure that is urgently needed to enable these major men's and women's downhill ski events to occur at Snowbasin in the year 2002," Hansen said on the House floor July 30, 1996.

On the north side of the Capitol, Hatch had praised the Senate for passing the Snowbasin Land Exchange Act, which he sponsored.

"Failure to pass the provisions that are included in this bill for Snowbasin would have greatly jeopardized the success of the 2002 Olympic Games and, in general, sullied the reputation of U.S. Olympic hosts before an international audience," he said on the Senate floor May 7, 1996. "This [land] transfer will allow development of base facilities that are needed for the Olympics."

Leavitt received a campaign check for $20,000 from Holding on March 5, 1996, and two months later told Congress: "In order to successfully host this venue, certain facilities must be built and improvements added to accommodate all of the activities which are demanded of an Olympic site."

But all the Salt Lake Organizing Committee was demanding from Snowbasin before 2002 was a world-class ski run and new connector road from Trappers Loop Highway.

"In terms of a resort, a resort [at Snowbasin] is not needed for the Olympic Games," Howard Peterson, the former president of U.S. Skiing and a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee bid city selection team, said in 1995.

The necessary ski runs and chair lifts were built after a suit by environmentalists failed, and the new road connecting Snowbasin to the state highway is under construction. While Holding publicly pledged he would pay for the connector if the state would build Trappers Loop Highway (linking Interstate 84 to the Ogden Valley), he eventually reneged. He no longer felt obligated, he said, because of the larger-than-anticipated amount of money he was investing in his new Little America Grand Hotel in Salt Lake City and to prepare Snowbasin for the Olympics.

"We're spending more money than you can think of to get it ready," Holding says today. "We've got massive things going on up there because of the races. I'll never live long enough to see the first dollar of profit come out of there."

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Public Thoroughfare: Another factor in Holding's decision not to build the connector road was the Snowbasin legislation. Unknown to most members of Congress, the bill dictated the Forest Service must build the connector road to avoid a time-consuming environmental impact study normally required by federal law.

But the Forest Service had no money for the road. Bennett, a member of the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee, inserted language into another budget bill allowing the $16 million needed for the 3.5-mile road to be directed to the Forest Service from any available source of taxpayer funds.

"This is the only way to get it done," Bennett said in June 1998. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., derided Bennett by bestowing the "Porker Award" on the road deal, which he said served no public purpose and was a waste of taxpayer money.

Construction of the new road by the Forest Service began last year, and the work underlined another key advantage in the congressional deal for Holding. By not building the road himself, he also avoided a major potential liability problem.

As a Forest Service study warned 10 years earlier, the new Snowbasin connector road is being built across two active slides, including the Bear Wallow slide that is comparable to the catastrophic Thistle mudslide of 1983 in Utah County. The new road runs 600 feet across the Bear Wallow Slide, which is moving downhill at a rate of 6 inches annually.

The Forest Service is now attempting to build a $1 million rock dam above the shifting right of way. It is an unproven attempt to hold back the sliding earth by channeling water underneath the soil shelf. If it fails, and motorists are harmed in a landslide, the issue of liability falls on the state, which will take over the maintenance of the road once the Forest Service builds it.

The new connector will shave about 15 minutes off the normal route from Salt Lake City to Snowbasin, a nine-mile state road that leads directly to the ski area.

Tribune reporter Guy Boulton contributed to this story.

 

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