Some property owners worry that ski area land swaps designed to protect Utah’s Cottonwood Canyons may have the opposite effect

Alta Ski Area photographed Thursday from the summer road. Ski area managers will take over summer programs in Albion Basin, the wildflower-filled bowl at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Visitors driving up the summer road can expect to pay a $6 fee or pay to ride the Sunnyside Lift to the Catherine's Pass trailhead. Photo by Brian Maffly, April 19, 2018

Utah’s Cottonwood canyons provide Salt Lake Valley residents with two precious resources: drinking water from snowmelt and outdoor recreation in an alpine setting just minutes from home.

These two interests are locked in perpetual conflict as more visitors crowd Little and Big Cottonwood canyons, requiring a careful balancing act that Wasatch Front cities, ski resorts and environmentalists are looking to secure in federal legislation that would designate an 80,000-acre preserve spanning the two popular canyons along with Mill Creek Canyon to the north.

A centerpiece of the proposed bill is language authorizing the U.S. Forest Service to swap land at resort base areas for old mining claims the resorts own higher up. Many nearby property owners object to the swaps as a massive “land grab” designed to enrich resort operators at the expense of their down-canyon neighbors and the environment.

“What is [the proposed legislation] protecting?” asked Silver Fork resident Norm Henderson. “It is not doing much of anything other than what’s already being done up there with the Forest Service and everything else. I want to protect the canyons, but I don’t think the trade-off to get a protected area in name only, for this massive new development in the ski resorts, is worth it.”

Others see the swaps as a necessary sacrifice to protect undeveloped land, such as Grizzly Gulch above the town of Alta and White Pine near Snowbird, while allowing the resorts to intensify development within their existing footprints.

Now, Alta Ski Area’s recent decision to withdraw its extensive holdings in Grizzly Gulch is threatening to unravel the interlocking set of of agreements that underpin the proposed Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area.

Key stakeholders have huddled with Alta managers to resolve the impasse but without success, according to Ralph Becker, Salt Lake City’s former mayor who was recently hired to run the Central Wasatch Commission, or CWC.

A panel of municipal representatives oversees the commission established to implement the vision outlined in the Mountain Accord, the landmark agreement reached in 2015 among environmentalists, nearby cities, the Forest Service and the ski areas that operate on public land there.

Legislation establishing a conservation zone will likely move forward without Alta’s participation, although dialogue with the ski area will continue, Becker and CWC Chairman Chris McCandless said in an interview.

“It’s too important to lose. We have no other mechanism to protect our canyons. It’s helter-skelter approvals and development and land exchanges on a piecemeal basis,” said McCandless, a Sandy City Council member and key figure behind the conservation plan. “When is the last time 88 people from varied walks of life signed an agreement as it relates to the canyons. … If we lose this, we lose our canyons. Not today, not next year, but 30 years from now?”

The conservation area was first proposed in 2016 legislation sponsored by then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. It failed to move out of committee, but now the CWC wants to breathe new life into the effort by enlisting Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, to carry a new version.

But, first, the CWC is expected to vote at its next meeting, in September, when its ranks will grow from seven members to 10, on a resolution endorsing a draft bill aimed at preserving the canyons’ natural values, while honoring existing property and water rights.

It’s a tough balancing act, and plenty of property owners, including Henderson, believe their interests are being ignored.

The draft measure aims to protect canyon watersheds, address traffic gridlock, “facilitate a balanced, year-round recreation system,” and add 8,000 acres to the canyons’ inventory of designated wilderness. It would also retract existing wilderness boundaries slightly to accommodate bikes on portions of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail under development near the mouth of Big Cottonwood.

At its last meeting Monday, a contentious gathering in Cottonwood Heights, the commissioners decided to withhold a vote until next month when new members are seated.

"The overwhelming and overriding goal and purpose is the protection of the canyons. In that we can all agree,” said commissioner Jim Bradley, a Salt Lake County Council member. “I’ll look forward in a month to reaffirm this body’s commitment to moving forward with the legislation that enhances our ability to do just that.”

Still, big controversies remain over proposed land swaps and a push to include White Pine Canyon as wilderness, which would exclude mountain biking and helicopter skiing in this popular area below Snowbird. “Mechanized” equipment is usually banned in designated wilderness, but many cyclists would like to ride White Pine even though it often fills with hikers.

The latest draft drops reference to land swaps involving Alta but preserves others for Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude.

Alta’s previous offer of Grizzly Gulch had been considered a crucial piece to the accord. This irregularly shaped parcel extends east from Alta’s Albion base area into undeveloped terrain used by hikers and backcountry skiers. This property reaches all the way over the Big Cottonwood divide into Solitude’s Honeycomb Canyon.

Since 2016, Alta Ski Area’s leadership has changed with the retirement of Onno Wieringa, who has been succeeded by Mike Maughan as general manager. Maughan now says Alta intends to retain ownership of Grizzly Gulch to boost the ski area’s footprint should the need arise to accommodate more skiers.

Conservation groups want Grizzly traded into the national forest as way to ensure Alta will never expand into this narrow canyon and construct lifts that could carry skiers over the divide into Big Cottonwood Canyon. Activists have been ardent supporters of the proposed conservation area, but their support could waiver without promises that Grizzly remain lift-free.

“Grizzly Gulch is one the most popular access points to Wasatch backcountry,” said Carl Fisher, Save Our Canyons executive director. “Anywhere there is ski lifts, you lose uphill hiking and [backcountry] skiing access.”

Salt Lake City, which relies on the canyons for culinary water it delivers to its residents and several other cities, also wants to see Grizzly left undeveloped, but officials say there is still much to be gained by the legislation even without Alta’s involvement. The city had previously offered to provide water Alta would need to operate new hotels to sweeten the Grizzly trade, which also included holdings along the Mount Baldy and Devils Castle ridgelines.

Snowbird is offering land it owns straddling the White Pine-Red Pine divide and on the north side of Little Cottonwood Canyon, opposite its year-round resort, in exchange for federal land at its base. According to Becker, the resort has approvals lined up for 2,000, hotel units at its base, on top of the 1,000 already built, regardless of any legislation. But a land swap would put to rest its controversial proposals for a roller coaster and other amenities under Mount Superior.

The current draft bill, which excludes Alta, would authorize giving the resorts 300 to 400 prime acres in exchange for far more acreage in steep terrain. One critic, Greg Schiffman, argues these trades would be worth up to $500 million to the ski areas because buildable land in the canyons is limited and in high demand.

The deals would have to undergo extensive analysis to ensure the land exchanged represents value for value. The resorts may cover any shortfall for the land they receive by paying up to 25 percent its appraised value, Nate Lewis, a Forest Service realty specialist, told the CWC at its Monday meeting.

Any trade would still undergo a 10-step vetting process, although legislation would clear the need for the Forest Service to make a public-interest determination, perhaps the toughest hurdle for any public-land trade.