Watershed is top priority in plotting Utah canyons' future
West Valley City • For a panel discussion on the complex topic of revising a Salt Lake County ordinance governing private land uses in the canyons, moderator Ken Verdoia brought out some balls and started juggling.
His point: To keep the act going, it's important to keep an eye on all of the balls. Look at one too much, and it's more likely another ball will be dropped.
"If you focus on one aspect of the challenges facing the canyons, the chain runs the risk of falling apart," Verdoia said Monday at Wasatch Canyons Today, a daylong symposium at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center designed to kick off Salt Lake County's push to revise its Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone (FCOZ) ordinance.
The canyons are too fragile and vital to let that happen, said two-term County Mayor Peter Corroon, who convened the gathering with support from Salt Lake City and the U.S. Forest Service, which join the county as the primary managers of canyon resources.
"We have to decide how these canyons will be used for many days to come," said Corroon, promising an open and transparent process over the final nine months of his administration so that the resulting ordinance will be one that varied stakeholders from watershed watchers and recreational users to resort owners and permanent residents can accept as valid and look to for direction.
That can be tough in an ever-changing world, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker told a crowd of about 130 people, noting that when he worked on canyon-use plans as a private consultant in the 1980s, nobody had any idea how big mountain biking would become.
But it has, Becker said, and as plans are being formulated now that will guide canyons' usage in the coming decades, it's important to anticipate the impacts of factors such as climate change. Rising temperatures will increase demands for water by a growing population, he added, and could change the very nature of the powder that makes the Cottonwood canyons such havens for skiing.
Various speakers and panelists offered other points to be emphasized as the retooled FCOZ ordinance takes shape, guided by a 15-member "blue-ribbon commission" that Corroon will put together with the consent of the County Council.
Save Our Canyons Executive Director Carl Fisher said the final ordinance should have specific rules governing development in the canyons and should not allow waivers or exceptions that provide "ways to get around the standards."
Salt Lake City Attorney Martin Banks, representing some of the four resorts in the Cottonwood canyons, suggested the county may want to subdivide the ordinance into separate components since the issues impacting the foothills are different from those in the canyons, just as items affecting resorts differ from those involving residential communities.
"We need site-specific answers to unique specific problems in different areas," he said.
Barbara Cameron, of the Big Cottonwood Community Council, said her biggest concern is one of neglect, with little funding available for improving transportation, trail management and public education about taking care of the canyons.
One point made clear during Monday's discussions was that watershed protection trumps all priorities.
That emphasis dates to the early 1900s, when President Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service for natural-resources conservation and watershed protection. At that time, Salt Lake City received authority to protect the water supply for what today amounts to roughly half the Salt Lake Valley's population.
All of the potential uses, Becker said, "need to be looked at comprehensively, holistically, sensibly, with good data and analysis. We need to look for solutions to problems that will be on top of us for many years."
In the next week or so, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon will produce application forms for four positions on a 15-member "blue-ribbon commission" that will guide the process of rewriting the Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone ordinance. The other 11 positions will be filled by county and Salt Lake City officials, a Salt Lake Valley Health Department appointee and representatives of property owners in the canyons, conservation groups and the ski industry.