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

Holding gave Forest Service employees freebies; but Snowbasin owner denies buying influence

Investigation conducted by Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General


"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 be."

-George Olsen, retired Forest Service official


By Christopher Smith
COPYRIGHT 2000, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE

Earl HoldingTwo 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 investigation—conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General—were 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 Valley—the renowned ski area owned by Holding—in 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 officials—including then deputy chief Gray Reynolds and Agriculture Undersecretary Jim Lyons—in 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 trivial.

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 recommendation.

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Legislative Approach: The first bill drawn up by legislative staff was opposed by the Forest Service, with Reynolds—then second in command of the agency—testifying 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 morning."

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 lands—the exact dollar amount remains secret—to 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.

 

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