Wharton: Save Our Canyons celebrates 40 years

By Tom Wharton

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: October 3, 2012 03:41PM
Updated: September 27, 2012 03:57PM
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Tom Wharton

Who knew that famed French skier Jean-Claude Killy played a role in the founding of the environmental group Save Our Canyons in the early 1970s?

Gale Dick, a University of Utah professor who founded the organization in 1972 with photographer and author Alexis Kelner and Salt Lake County resident Floyd Sweat, said his encounter with Killy occurred on a backcountry ski tour near the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon in the early 1970s that culminated at Gad Valley.

As Dick prepared to ski down a pristine powder run, he saw a man at the bottom frantically waving his arms and telling him not to ski there. Figuring there was an avalanche problem of some sort, Dick and his party skied down some cruddy snow, only to find out that Killy was doing a promo for the new Snowbird ski resort and the camera people wanted the pristine slope for their own.

“That dramatized in one great moment what was coming,” recalled Dick, now 86 but still active in Save Our Canyons.

Thus, an organization with a current mailing list of about 2,000 members and a full-time staff of three began.

Save Our Canyons’ mission statement is to “protect the wildness and beauty of the Wasatch Mountains, canyons and foothills” and, with the serious Dick and humorous Kelner often providing the volunteer passion, it has become a serious player in local issues.

Kelner, now 74, said shortly after the Killy incident, a few volunteers met at his house. Denver was in the process of kicking out the Olympics as the group had a silk-screening session making an initial batch of its iconic green and white “Save Our Canyons” bumper stickers.

“We did a lot of this stuff out of our own pockets,” said Kelner. “We purchased a printing press to save costs. I had to learn how to operate it. It’s still in my basement, if anyone would care to buy it.”

Kelner has always had a keen sense of humor. Since fighting Snowbird’s building of condos and a huge resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon was a galvanizing moment for the fledgling group, he couldn’t resist parodying one of the resort’s initial promotional billboards. It featured a huge gorilla stomping over the mountains.

“What a nice antidevelopment poster that would be,” thought Kelner, who produced a Save Our Canyons poster with the gorilla sporting a giant dollar sign instead of the Snowbird logo on its chest. Carl Fisher, now the executive director of Save Our Canyons, still has a preserved copy of that iconic poster.

Looking over the past 40 years, Kelner and Dick feel as though their efforts have resulted in successes and failures. They list successes as helping to get Lone Peak designated as Utah’s first wilderness area, working to get other Wasatch wilderness areas preserved in a 1984 bill, keeping 2002 Winter Olympic venues out of the Cottonwood Canyons, the passage of the 1989 Wasatch Canyons master plan, the elimination of commercial flight paths over much of the range and Salt Lake County dropping all RS2477 road claims.

But there were failures as well. Dick said the worst was the Snowbasin land trade, which he called a far worse Olympic scandal than the charges Salt Lake used bribery to obtain the bid. The ugly Tavaci road at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon was another, as was the approval of a yet-to-be-built Hidden Peak conference center by Snowbird. The group is also not happy that federal environmental laws have been applied to only individual projects in the canyons, without looking at the cumulative effects.

Many of these issues have returned as the group celebrates its 40th year.

“A lot of them are coming to a culmination,” said Fisher. “Forty years of work is all taking place right now, with everything on the table. Nothing seems to have gone away. We’re talking about Interconnect, ski resort expansion, Hidden Peak, Tavaci, county master plans and wilderness. We’re facing it all at once, and we haven’t figured out if that is a good or bad thing.”

Dick is convinced that the reason Save Our Canyons has enjoyed some success is that there is huge support among valley residents for preserving the Wasatch in as wild a form as possible.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton