Sandy • Utah's ski industry will support enhanced federal protections for the central Wasatch Mountains, forgoing future ski-area expansions in exchange for land swaps designed to help the four Cottonwood canyon resorts realize their economic potential through more development around their bases.
That momentous accommodation, endorsed by both Ski Utah and conservation groups that long have sought more wilderness and protective designations in the backcountry, was achieved Monday when the Mountain Accord received unanimous approval from an executive committee of nearly two dozen organizations vitally interested in the future of the popular range.
It's all on paper at this point — or will be in a couple of weeks when Mountain Accord coordinator Laynee Jones organizes a formal signing ceremony somewhere in the Cottonwood canyons.
And no one is disputing that plenty of crucial and controversial issues remain undecided, such as the idea of putting rail service up Little Cottonwood Canyon, cutting a tunnel to link the tops of Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood, or finding some mixture of mechanisms for creating a "One Wasatch" interconnect between all seven resorts in the central Wasatch.
But a sense of accomplishment pervaded Sandy City Hall on Monday afternoon as nearly two years of sometimes contentious meetings produced a document that will serve as a starting point for a comprehensive environmental impact study that the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Highway Administration are expected to undertake.
"What kept me at the table in moments when I was ready to walk away is knowing that no agreement is worse than the failure of doing nothing," said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, the executive committee's co-chairman.
The result was roundly applauded, albeit with plenty of reservations about particulars. Said Barbara Cameron, who has spent years working on canyon issues as a tireless advocate for Big Cottonwood Canyon residents: "Mountain Accord has given us hope. It's given us a vision and a template right here, right now, and we're very grateful."
Much of the here and now involves the Mountain Accord's proposed land exchanges between the four ski resorts and the Forest Service. In total, the ski areas would give up about 2,147 acres for 760 acres of federal land in the canyon bottoms. Individually, the deals would provide:
• Alta with 160 acres at its base, a 100-room hotel (probably one building) and eight commercial/retail shops in support of a transit station, and the water to service them, in exchange for 603 acres in Grizzly Gulch, Devil's Castle and on Emma Ridge. Alta also wants a tunnel or another type of connection to Big Cottonwood, but is giving up its plan for a ski lift up Flagstaff Mountain when avalanche control methods are upgraded.
• Snowbird with 43 acres at its Little Cottonwood Canyon base. Snowbird also sought 400 acres of Forest Service land in American Fork Canyon, where it is in the early stages of expansion plans, but dropped that from the Mountain Accord agreement to let Utah County address the issue and to assuage the vehement objections of numerous Utah County residents.
• Solitude with 50 acres around its base and a 15-acre expansion of its special-use permit in Honeycomb Canyon so that it can realign a lift and open more of the canyon to skiing. Deer Valley, the resort's owner, would give up 240 acres in the Hidden Canyon/Guardsman Road area and improve access points for backcountry skiers to reach Silver Fork Canyon, which will remain outside the resort.
Solitude also would be guaranteed water by Salt Lake City when it comes time to develop another 120 hotel rooms in the base village.
• Brighton would get 15 acres at its base and its Forest Service permit would be expanded 100 to 175 acres in Hidden Canyon in return for 200 acres of private land higher on the mountain.
Work on these land swaps is expected to coincide with the Mountain Accord's request that Utah's congressional delegation take the lead in promoting creation of "A National Conservation and Recreation Area" in the central Wasatch, specifically prohibiting "expansion of ski areas onto public lands beyond the resort-area boundaries."
Although Save Our Canyons' executive director, Carl Fisher, still opposes connecting the resorts, especially Alta's proposed tunnel connection to Big Cottonwood, he said this agreement is about "change, dealing with change, controlling the change and trying to grab the bull by the horns to protect this irreplaceable asset we're so fortunate to be surrounded by."
Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty said the One Wasatch concept is still alive and something the industry remains eager to pursue, but insisted the resorts are flexible. "We are open to different kinds of connections," he said.
Alta Mayor Tom Pollard similarly endorsed the agreement with a caveat, his being that the town wants to retain the planning and zoning authority to ensure that whatever new development comes its way is to the liking of residents. Most, he added, don't want a tunnel.
A number of canyon residents also voiced an intense disdain for the idea of building a train up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Several speakers pushed for more bus service in the canyon as a cheaper, less environmentally invasive way to meet Mountain Accord's goal of establishing disincentives for people to drive individual cars up the Cottonwood canyons.
Other proposals include the creation of a "scorecard" to monitor the environmental health of the central Wasatch and to clean up and organize a trail system running through the range.
Reaching this point of agreement, said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, "reflects a huge potential step forward to advance protection of these mountains in ways that only could have been dreamed about when we started the process."