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Wharton: Looking back at Salt Lake canyons

By Tom Wharton

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jul 19 2012 09:50 am • Last Updated Oct 30 2012 11:32 pm

Looking backward 26 years can be a dangerous game, especially for a columnist.

While cleaning out my desk a few weeks ago, I came across a column I wrote in 1986 with the headline "It’s time to stop taking our canyons for granted." Ignoring the obvious fact that I have lost a lot of hair and put on too much weight since that column photo was taken, I read the piece with a bit of trepidation. Some of the things written were pretty radical.

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Consider a few:

"Developers intent on making money off the canyons have started to threaten them in a slow process that could destroy the reason so many of us have visited them for so many years."

"As the canyon developments continue to increase in size, how are the small roads going to handle the increased traffic, something the obsolete roads often have difficulty doing now? What of the future if the proposed developments take place?"

"Range scientists use a term called ‘carrying capacity’ to describe the maximum allowable grazing that can be tolerated by the land. It appears as though the Wasatch Front canyons will soon reach their carrying capacity for people, if they haven’t already."

"The mountains and canyons of the Wasatch are too precious to be turned over to the care of people who worry more about the bottom line that they do about future generations of Salt Lakers. These wild areas have reached their carrying capacity. Now is the time to tell the developers to take their condos and ski lifts elsewhere."

So, what has actually happened since I wrote those words?

Solitude did, indeed, build a new village at its base. The four Cottonwood Canyon resorts — Brighton, Solitude, Alta and Snowbird — have added new roadways, piping and lifts in an effort to compete and bring more people to the canyons during the winter ski season and during the summer.

People still love their canyons. On any given weekend, we flock to the mountains for hiking, skiing, a nice dinner at a resort restaurant, fishing, sightseeing, a picnic, an overnight camping trip, a special event or to climb.

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The watersheds still seem to be functioning well, providing drinking water for thousands in the valley below. The roads remain crowded on most days, especially after a good dump of powder in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Yet the actual numbers of skiers using the four Cottonwood Canyon resorts has remained surprisingly flat since the 1989-90 ski season.

According to U.S. Forest Service figures, the number of skiers using the four canyons was 1,257,786 in the 1989-90 ski season compared with 1,355,175 this past season. The highest number reached was 1,608,168 in 2005-06.

Alta actually had more skiers in 1989-90 — 471,953 — than it did last year when it hit 364,090. Snowbird recorded the biggest gains, going from 393,309 skiers in 1989-90 to 520,000 in the excellent snow year of 2010-11.

Solitude’s major building project hasn’t helped it much. It had 203,663 skiers in 1989-90 compared with 180,103 last year. Brighton, with little or no base development, showed perhaps the greatest increase during that time period, moving from 188,861 skiers in the late ’80s to 392,882 this year.

So how should all of this be interpreted?

An argument could be made that, for the most part, improvements in lift technology, Solitude’s base facilities and heavy promotion of Utah’s ski industry have made little real difference in the number of skiers coming up the Cottonwood Canyons over the past 20 years.

Perhaps these smaller resorts can’t compete with Park City’s three giant resorts for out-of-state tourist dollars, instead catering more to locals. Is this why the Cottonwood resorts seem so desperate to be connected with lifts from Park City?

And I have to concede that perhaps the canyons and their resorts have not reached their human carrying capacities yet. That said, they remain mostly beautiful and only a little sullied by overdevelopment. Local planners and the U.S. Forest Service still should proceed cautiously before continuing to grant resort expansion.


Twitter: @tribtomwharton

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