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Editorial: Good process drives Mountain Accord bill

First Published      Last Updated Jul 14 2016 06:00 pm

Of the two bills Rep. Jason Chaffetz introduced on management of federal lands in Utah this week, there is no question that one reflects a true negotiation among stakeholders.

And that will make all the difference in the path to turn Mountain Accord into a viable management plan for the central Wasatch Mountains, our magnificent source of inspiration, recreation and hydration.

This bill would create the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area, covering an area of mostly Wasatch-Cache National Forest land bordered by Interstate 80 on the north and the Utah County line on the south. The vast majority is in Salt Lake County, with a small portion of Summit County.




Most importantly, it encompasses the highly used and highly needed Cottonwood Canyons, home to several of Utah's legendary ski resorts as well as being a major source of drinking water for Salt Lake Valley. As outdoor recreation has exploded in Utah in recent decades, nowhere has the impact been felt more directly.

That dynamic has set up often bitter disputes between private landowners, the Forest Service, Salt Lake City (which owns the water), the ski resorts and environmentalists and backcountry skiers. This bill won't make all of that go away, but its land trades and its cap on ski resort development go a long way to providing all parties with some permanence.

And it wasn't without trade-offs. Salt Lake City gained some watershed protection, but it also had to give up some more water to the ski resorts in return. The ski resorts gain ownership of the land under their base facilities (currently leased from the Forest Service), but they gave up their expansion rights in the area. The environmentalists gained more wilderness and the cap on resort expansion, but only after conceding heli-skiing in certain areas.

Notably, this bill largely leaves transportation issues in the canyons for another day, allowing a variety of options from the basic (adding more buses) to the exotic (moving people from one canyon to another through tunnels or a non-skier tramway). But the bill does make one important statement: The transportation solution won't include expanding roads to get more passenger cars up the canyons, which already face gridlock on heavy ski days.

Even with its broad-based support, congressional approval is not certain. And even if passed, the bill by no means settles everything. It gives a framework for the land trades, which still will need a separate environmental review and public process.

Give the Mountain Accord process (and the people behind it) credit for keeping people at the table and forging a legitimate compromise. It is a great model for balancing competing interests on Utah's federal lands.

 

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