Cardiff Fork trails in Cottonwood Canyon are closed. Where are they and how did we get here?

Dispute between inholding owners and Forest Service is disrupting access to a slice of the Wasatch

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Much of Big Cottonwood Canyon’s Cardiff Fork is private land, including the upper portions pictured here Sept. 10, 2022. Private property owners have revoked public access through their inholdings after a long-standing agreement with the U.S. Forest Service collapsed this summer.

Marking a serious escalation in tensions between the U.S. Forest Service and owners of Big Cottonwood Canyon inholdings, officials recently cut off property owners’ motorized access to private land in Cardiff Fork.

[Editor’s note: This is condensed version of a much longer story posted Sept. 13 regarding the dispute between the U.S. Forest Service and Cardiff Fork property owners, and how that is impacting public access to this alpine canyon in the heart of Utah’s backcountry ski country. This is an ongoing controversy that will receive additional reporting by The Tribune.]

The move marks the demise of a 10-year-old agreement over public access to the scenic alpine cirque at the head of the canyon, long enjoyed by backcountry skiers and hikers in the heart of Utah’s storied backcountry outside Salt Lake City.

The public no longer has a right to cross the private inholdings, which are all historic mining claims, rendering much of Cardiff off-limits to recreation without landowner permission, according to Ben Kraja, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest’s acting Salt Lake district ranger.

“It was their [the Cardiff Canyon Owners Association’s] decision,” Kraja said. “They notified us on May 31 they would not be renewing their permit. They think they own a right of way. We haven’t seen any credible evidence that a legal right of way exists.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

It is now essentially impossible to hike or ski through Cardiff without trespassing. So at a time when recreational pressure on Utah’s Central Wasatch is exploding, access to public land is getting more complicated, leaving few places to enjoy the alpine scenery in Salt Lake City’s backyard.

May 31 was the expiration of the owners association’s special permit that granted them motorized use of the Cardiff Fork Road, which crosses nearly 3 miles of national forest in four segments. At least 1,000 acres in the canyon are in private hands, scattered around in parcels of various sizes and shapes reflecting the abandoned historic mines that dot the landscape.

The dispute over access forced state mining officials to suspend mine reclamation activities in the Canyon earlier this month.

Six “notices of noncompliance” have been sent to the owners association over the past two years, alleging its members have driven vehicles and snowmobiles off the road and conducted “unauthorized” road maintenance. Some also have installed structures without approval from Salt Lake County, the notices allege.

A lawyer for the owners disputed those claims and accused the Forest Service of acting in a “passive-aggressive manner” by blocking the access that the property owners are entitled to as a matter of law.

“My clients own property there,” said Robert T. Spjute. “At the same time, they’re allowing public access across existing roads and trails, which is great for other folks who are trying to recreate up there. But, obviously, there remains a lot of unanswered questions as to the intent and reason why the Forest Service chose their recent course of action.”