As Utah’s population continues to grow, more and more people are escaping to the canyons of the Wasatch Front and enjoying the outdoors. The increase in visitors brings its challenges, particularly with how those delicate wilderness areas handle transportation.
Earlier this month the Central Wasatch Commission (CWC) issued a request for proposals for a mobility action plan to identify both short and long-term solutions to the canyon’s transportation issues while generating the least amount of impact on the environment.
The CWC is an intergovernmental agency made up of city, county and state entities with the goal of sustainability in the popular Salt Lake mountain range. The CWC is soliciting proposals through Aug. 30.
Blake Perez, the CWC’s executive director of administration, said the mobility plan is the first time the commission has specifically looked at Big Cottonwood Canyon, as previous studies included larger areas of the Central Wasatch.
“Circumstances have certainly changed in Big Cottonwood Canyon in the past couple of years, (including) increased visitation year-round,” Perez told The Salt Lake Tribune. “So we think the time is ripe to pursue this and lay out a game plan for policymakers, decision-makers to get behind and pursue.”
The jump in traffic to northern Utah’s forests has also prompted the U.S. Forest Service to consider enacting fees at 119 recreation sites, including some areas of both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Barbara Cameron, a resident of Big Cottonwood Canyon for 22 years, said the number of visitors exploded following the COVID-19 outbreak. The canyon now sees massive crowds throughout the year, not just during ski season.
She hopes one solution could be expanded public transit like buses, which don’t run through Big Cottonwood Canyon in the summer. But outside of that, Cameron said she is not sure what other solutions there could be.
“I don’t see that there would be much change to the road, like road widening,” Cameron told The Tribune. “We don’t have that kind of space.”
Widening roads is one of the potential solutions being studied in another nearby Wasatch front canyon, as the Utah Department of Transportation has yet to release their study on whether new, dedicated bus lanes or an 8-mile-long gondola would be the best solution for Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Carl Fisher, executive director for Save Our Canyons, said the hopes the Big Cottonwood mobility plan takes into account the greater Wasatch Front, as he believes the canyons need a more cohesive approach instead of dealing with each canyon separately.
“This kind of piecemeal approach to planning really could be the end of the Wasatch as we’ve known it, I feel,” Fisher said.
For Perez, a mobility plan couldn’t get here sooner. Like Fisher, Perez hopes the plan will be followed by state and local government bodies as a way to properly address the growing number of visitors in the canyon.
“With increased visitation and mobility declining and people not being able to access public lands and having environmental impacts, we need to lay something out that UDOT and the Forest Service can move forward with environmental studies and start implementing,” Perez said.
The total for the CWC contract is $155,000. Perez said the mobility plan is scheduled to be finalized and made available in May.