Wharton: It's time for a comprehensive Wasatch canyons master plan
Consider the importance of the Wasatch canyons to the quality of life of Salt Lake County residents.
They provide water to 400,000 people. Nearly a half-million skiers visit the four Cottonwood Canyon resorts annually, with even more enjoying Park City's megaresorts on the Wasatch Back. Hikers, mountain bikers, climbers, campers, picnickers and anglers use the area. Private cabin owners consider their property a piece of heaven. Simply taking a Sunday drive to enjoy the autumn leaves or grabbing a meal at a canyon restaurant is an annual ritual for hundreds.
Yet these canyons are currently facing some of the biggest changes since the mining boom of the late 1800s greatly altered their natural state.
"My new mantra is that the canyons went through a whole bunch of mining development, eventually bringing in the Forest Service in 1905 to begin a long and steady restoration of the canyons," said Jeff Niemeyer, Salt Lake City's public-utilities director. "It took 100 years of restoration after the abuse they took. Are we about ready to lose 100 years of restoration?"
Niemeyer put together a map of proposed and rumored ski-resort expansion and Interconnect plans, a sobering exercise that prompted concern from his boss, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker.
The mayor said the map shows that all of the terrain near the top of the Wasatch Canyons not currently within ski areas' boundaries would be consumed by the resorts.
"It would transform the Wasatch into developed ski-resort areas on an action-by-action, piece-by-piece basis," said Becker, who wrote the 1988 canyons master plan as an environmental planner. "I don't think that allows us to fairly evaluate proposals that are out there. We need to consider the impacts comprehensively and make decisions for the long-term interests of the community."
That's why the Salt Lake City mayor is proposing a grand canyons master plan that may take as long as three years to put together. It would involve Salt Lake and Summit counties, the U.S. Forest Service, the Utah Transit Authority, the state's congressional delegation, ski-resort owners, private landowners and, of course, the public.
He admits that people might be skeptical that such a grand plan might work or have enough teeth to be effective. But the Salt Lake City mayor said that without such a plan, there will be disjointed proposals for new lifts or expansion such as the SkiLink between The Canyons in Park City and Solitude in Big Cottonwood Canyon without an idea as to the cumulative effects of these developments.
Niemeyer put it this way:
"As the provider of water to more than 400,000 people, we need to look at the cumulative impacts, not just one individual development. A developer might say that my parking lot or set of ski towers can't show an impact. But, with the magnitude of change, I can guarantee you are going to have significant impacts that can't be mitigated."
Becker is particularly upset with the Canadian-owned Canyons ski area, which is trying to do an end run around local and national planning processes by getting most of Utah's congressional delegation to sponsor a bill that would allow U.S. Forest Service to sell nearly 31 acres of public land so it can build a lift.
"We see the Canyons ski resort and potentially all those behind them circumventing local decisionmaking, and that is troublesome for us," he said. "We have no ability to protect our watershed if Congress is going to make a decision for one interest, the ski areas. The ski areas have been good partners, but that hasn't happened with Congress telling us what to do."
Count me among the skeptics who feel that a well funded multinational corporation or a local resort with political connections usually finds a way around the best-written master plans.
That said, coming up with a master plan with a vision of what our precious Wasatch canyons should look like during the next 100 years is certainly a worthwhile project.