Holding gave Forest Service employees freebies; but Snowbasin owner
denies buying influence
Investigation conducted by Agriculture Departments Office of
"This was a major project that we were doing under
presidential authority with everyone from the governor on down saying, Let's do it,'
but even still, I'm not going to cut any corners or grant any favors."
-Randy Welsh, Ogden district ranger
Forest Service deputy chief Gray Reynolds quit his job and went
to work for Earl Holding, assuming the title of general manager of Snowbasin and the
epithet of Judas Iscariot among many Forest Service veterans.
"Never before did you have such a specific and detailed land
exchange bill that ordered the public to stay out of it despite so many economic and
environmental concerns a ski area poses. As an agency, we are not as stout as we used to
-George Olsen, retired Forest Service official
By Christopher Smith
COPYRIGHT 2000, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
Two years before the Olympic bid-city scandal erupted, a federal investigator
met with Salt Lake Organizing Committee board member Earl Holding to question him about
allegations of bribery related to the 2002 Winter Games.
But this federal probe wasn't about gifts to International Olympic
Committee members. It was about Holding giving free meals to U.S. Forest Service employees
who were working on a federal land exchange for his Snowbasin Ski Area in apparent
violation of federal employee ethical conduct laws.
Details from the investigationconducted by the U.S. Department of
Agricultures Office of Inspector Generalwere recently released to The Salt
Lake Tribune under the Freedom of Information Act. They included:
· On at least two occasions in 1995, Ogden District ranger Randy
Welsh and other employees directly involved in negotiating a land swap accepted free meals
from Snowbasin staff. One of those meals was an elaborate buffet at Snowbasin with chefs
and food flown in from Sun Valleythe renowned ski area owned by Holdingin an
effort to impress visiting IOC dignitaries. Welsh says he did not believe the meals
exceeded the $20 limit in the ethics law.
· Holding said he regularly provided free meals and drinks to top
Forest Service officialsincluding then deputy chief Gray Reynolds and Agriculture
Undersecretary Jim Lyonsin meetings held after normal working hours at Holding's
offices as a "convenience," and "never attempted to influence" any
government employee with the freebies. Reynolds, now a Snowbasin employee, denies
attending any such meetings with Holding.
· Ogden Ranger District employees were provided approximately 15
free tickets to the opening ceremony of the 1995 National Alpine Skiing Championships at
Snowbasin. The Ogden/Weber Chamber of Commerce reportedly donated the tickets, although
the investigator tracing the source found "someone from Sun Valley ski area had
purchased a number of tickets to the opening ceremony." Holding told the investigator
he did not recall purchasing any tickets to the ceremony.
· During the IOC buffet at Snowbasin in April 1995, Holding
provided helicopter tours of the ski area to visiting IOC members, with several
helicopters landing and lifting off on national forest land without a required special-use
permit. Asked by the investigator why Holding was not required to get such a permit,
Forest Service officials said they considered the law "a gray area."
Viewed against the backdrop of the $1 million bribery scandal, the
investigation into federal employees accepting a few free meals and ski race tickets seems
But it fits a larger pattern. Rather than being influenced by free
lunches, some employees say the real arm-twisting came from powerful elected officials
acting on Holding's behalf.
"This was a major project that we were doing under presidential
authority with everyone from the governor on down saying, Let's do it,' but even
still, I'm not going to cut any corners or grant any favors," Welsh says today.
"Could I have been more forceful on [Snowbasin] meeting deadlines? Maybe, but it
wouldn't have done any good. There wasn't a lot of backup support."
The Dream: Political leaning on the Forest Service was a tactic repeated
frequently during Holding's decade long drive to acquire publicly owned land to expand the
base of his ski resort near Huntsville and link Snowbasin to more than 10,000 acres of
adjacent property he already owned. Along the way, the amount of national forest land
traded grew from 200 acres to 1,377 acres, or more than 2 square miles. His ultimate goal:
build a premier year-round resort community with million-dollar homes, condominiums, a
golf course and other upscale amenities.
It may make good business sense. Due to demographic changes and the
escalation of lift-ticket prices, alpine skiing has stagnated nationally since 1979 and
hundreds of ski areas have closed. Today, a first-class ski resort is frequently the loss
leader for adjacent "log mahal" real-estate developments. To justify the
investment to bring Snowbasin up to Olympic standards, Holding wanted more surrounding
land for a luxurious real-estate development.
"Earl was always telling us how he was losing money at Snowbasin,
which was no news to me because we had seen his books," says George Olsen, who
retired from the Forest Service in 1994 after working frequently with Snowbasin. "He
would complain how the skiers there were so doggoned cheap they wouldn't even buy his
hamburgers. They'd bring their sack lunches and sit on the patio. He wanted to attract the
jet-setters and create an elite outdoor experience for extremely wealthy people who are
not enthusiastic to eat at a Pizza Hut or McDonald's."
The Forest Service, by law, is in the public recreation business, not the
private real-estate development business. Transforming Snowbasin from a mediocre ski hill
for locals into an internationally known schussing ground was within the agency's mission.
But trading away publicly owned watershed, wildlife habitat and wetlands to help build the
next Deer Valley stuck in the craw of many agency veterans.
Trading Up: Wasatch-Cache Forest Supervisor Dale Bosworth decided in
February 1990 that all Holding needed for making Snowbasin a legitimate downhill resort
was 200 acres of national forest land at the base.
"That mountain was public land and the question to me was how much of
that public land do we exchange so that single-family homes and condos can be built
there," says Bosworth, now a regional forester in Montana. "Any more than 200
acres did not seem to be in the best interest of the public."
Seven months later, his boss, Stan Tixier, would grudgingly increase the
amount to 700 acres, still not enough for Snowbasin, which unsuccessfully appealed. When
the Forest Service tried to finish the 700-acre trade to meet Snowbasin's deadlines,
employees claim Holding refused to cooperate.
"This was a priority project and we were frustrated because they
would continually stonewall us, withhold information, change their project designs, all
the time holding out for a better deal," says Welsh. "Earl likes to call all the
shots and when things are done in a public forum like we were required to do, it was
impossible for him to be in control and he didn't like it."
Yet Clint Ensign, Holding's corporate lobbyist, maintains it was the
Forest Service that suggested Holding seek out a congressionally approved land swap to
eliminate delays in getting the deal done.
"We were told and advised the legislative approach was the way to
go," says Ensign. Welsh and other Forest Service officials deny making any such
Legislative Approach: The first bill drawn up by legislative staff was
opposed by the Forest Service, with Reynoldsthen second in command of the
agencytestifying against some of the provisions. Yet Reynolds eventually wound up
writing much of a 1,320-acre land exchange act that passed a nearly empty Congress on the
last working day of 1996, buried deep in a 700-page omnibus bill that created new
wilderness, parks and trails in 41 states. Subsequent surveys would later add 57 acres to
the Snowbasin trade total.
Six months later, Reynolds quit the Forest Service and went to work for
Holding, assuming the title of general manager of Snowbasin and the epithet of Judas
Iscariot among many Forest Service veterans.
"Gray made the decision according to [Congressman] Jim Hansen to up
the acreage and then Gray retired and almost immediately went to work for Earl," says
Tixier. "I don't know about him, but I have to look in the mirror when I shave every
Responds Reynolds: "I don't have any trouble shaving in the mirror in
the morning, because I've been as ethical as possible. There is no way to offset the costs
on the mountain unless you have the base area and there isn't 200 acres of developable
land at the base, so you needed more acreage. I have always believed this [1,320-acre
package] was in the best interest of the public."
Still, Olsen and other veterans consider the Snowbasin land exchange act
one of the Forest Service's darkest hours.
"Never before did you have such a specific and detailed land exchange
bill that ordered the public to stay out of it despite so many economic and environmental
concerns a ski area poses," he says. "As an agency, we are not as stout as we
used to be."
The bill exempted Snowbasin's first phase of development from the federal
laws that allow citizens to appeal decisions on how their public lands are used. It
dictated that the Forest Service must build a connector road to Snowbasin that Holding had
publicly pledged to pay for himself.
In a seeming understatement Hansen used on the House floor, it was "a
very minor land exchange."
But now, four years later, the land exchange that Holding expected would
be done shortly after he bought Snowbasin in 1984 has not been finalized, as the Forest
Service waits for appraisals on the value of Holding's landsthe exact dollar amount
remains secretto match their trade.
"You will have one of the very finest ski resorts in the world at
Snowbasin when we finish there," says Holding. "If we ever finish."
Tribune reporter Guy Boulton contributed to this story.