Becker pushes grand plan for Wasatch canyons in D.C.
Washington • Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker doesn't want to end just one contentious issue involving the Wasatch canyons. He wants to settle them all and in an unprecedented fashion.
Becker and a team of advisers flew to Washington, D.C., this week to pitch federal agencies on a sweeping environmental review that would seek agreements on wilderness, watershed protection, ski resort expansion and transportation for all the canyons east of the Salt Lake Valley.
At this point, his grand plan which could forestall the controversial SkiLink proposal to connect the Canyons and Solitude resorts doesn't have a name, and many officials such as Sen. Mike Lee and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon are a bit hazy on the specifics.
But Becker is bullish on the idea, saying he expects to launch the effort in the next few months. He envisions at least 40 power players spending the next couple of years creating a comprehensive plan for the future of the Wasatch.
"We are coming back charged up and working to put together the documents that will put us in a strong position to kick things off," Becker said Wednesday after finishing two days of meetings with Utah's congressional members and officials at federal agencies such as the Transportation Department and the White House's Council on Environmental Quality.
His team is in the process of drafting a memorandum of understanding for the federal agencies, including the Forest Service, to sign.
"The mayor briefed us on his ongoing planning process for the Wasatch Range and proactive efforts to promote efficient environmental reviews," said Taryn Tuss, spokeswoman for the White House council. "We look forward to learning more about efforts in Salt Lake City and determining how we can support them."
Lee, a freshman Republican from Utah, along with fellow Beehive State congressmen, Republican Rob Bishop and Democrat Jim Matheson, said they didn't have enough details to comment on the plan.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, expressed skepticism at the role the White House could play, though he "obviously" backs the idea of a broad-based discussion of the issues.
"I'm just not sure that is the right agency," Chaffetz said. "When you have the federal government lead out, you can often have problems."
Becker notes that the Council on Environmental Quality would not run the review, though he sees it playing a "convening and guiding role."
"We haven't settled on what the lead agency would be," the two-term mayor said. "This will be a locally driven effort. In fact, I think that is something that's welcome by everyone in the federal agencies."
The effort could sideline two competing congressional bills: a Wasatch wilderness proposal sponsored by Matheson and the SkiLink measure, backed by Bishop. The SkiLink bill would require the U.S. Forest Service to sell land along the Big Cottonwood Canyon ridge so a gondola could connect Solitude Mountain Resort in Salt Lake County to Canyons Resort in Summit County.
"Those two pieces of legislation would probably take a backseat to this process," said Becker, who opposes Bishop's legislation because he fears SkiLink could damage the quantity and quality of the city-managed water supply.
It also is unclear how Becker's proposed review would jibe with other planning efforts, including a canyons transportation plan, the county's plans to overhaul the Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone (FCOZ) ordinance and a recently completed Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow push led by Envision Utah.
Becker says those initiatives are important but only address some of the issues.
"We were starting down the road with a lot of disjointed decisions that affected all of us in these mountains in a major way," Becker said. "We could all benefit by having a current look at these issues together."
He hopes the meetings would include, among other parties, the Utah Transit Authority, the Salt Lake Chamber, Summit County, state officials and environmental groups such as Save Our Canyons.
Bringing myriad public and private players to the table in an effort to craft a comprehensive environmental review would be unwieldy but could prove useful, said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons.
"It would be good to get everyone on the same page going in the same direction," he said. "But it could be a difficult discussion."
Becker said he has had informal conversations with many of these groups in the past six months, although some seemed less than familiar with his vision.
The mayor also ran the proposal by Gov. Gary Herbert a month ago, but with little detail.
"The governor is always supportive of bringing stakeholders to the table," Herbert spokeswoman Ally Isom said. "And, generally, the governor supports whatever we can do to make progress on environmental and economic issues."
Corroon, who has made the remaking of FCOZ a priority in his final year as county mayor, said he and Becker "talked about having one process for reviewing what we are doing, but I don't think we have talked about it as one big two- to three-year environmental initiative."
Becker said some groups have been concerned about the potential outcomes, and he insists the results on controversial issues such as resort expansions won't be predetermined.
"Everyone has an idea what the answers are and they are all different," he said. "We'll see where we end up."
Tribune reporter Christopher Smart contributed to this story.
Matheson's Wasatch wilderness bill
Rep. Jim Matheson's bill would protect an additional 26,000 acres in the canyons east of the Salt Lake Valley. It also would, among other things:
• Establish the Wayne Owens Grandeur Peak-Mount Aire Wilderness Area, nearly 8,000 acres of new wilderness in Mill Creek and Parleys canyons.
• Add more than 800 acres to the Mount Olympus Wilderness Area and provide enhanced watershed protection.
• Create the Bear Trap Wilderness Area, 2,342 acres at the headwaters of Big Cottonwood Canyon's watershed.
• Protect Flagstaff Peak in the Twin Peaks Wilderness Area and halt off-highway vehicle use in Mineral Fork.
• Add 4,627 acres to the 30,000-acre Lone Peak Wilderness Area and enhance watershed protection in the Silver Creek Canyon drainage area in Utah County's American Fork Canyon.
Bishop's SkiLink bill
Rep. Rob Bishop's measure could clear the way for a gondola linking Canyons Resort outside Park City to Solitude Mountain Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon. It would:
• Require the selling of 30 acres of public land in Big Cottonwood, at fair market value, to a subsidiary of Talisker Mountain Inc., the Canadian company that owns Canyons.
• Remove the U.S. Forest Service as a regulatory authority on the gondola plan.