Landmark conservation plan for cherished Cottonwood canyons near Salt Lake City is almost done but minus a big name: Alta ski resort

Cottonwood Heights • The latest conservation vision for the beloved canyons east of Salt Lake City has been unveiled by the Central Wasatch Commission, which is poised to finalize draft legislation to expand protected wilderness and freeze ski area boundaries, while authorizing land exchanges that would concentrate development at resort base areas.

But the 80,000-acre boundaries of the proposed Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area excludes Alta Ski Area, whose owners want to keep open the option of expanding into their undeveloped holdings in Grizzly Gulch.

These expansion plans made it necessary to remove the famed ski resort, which operates largely in a national forest, from the proposed conservation plan that is vital to tackling traffic congestion and other problems plaguing Little and Big Cottonwood canyons, according to Chris McCandless, the commission chairman

“It [the proposed legislation] gives added protection against degradation of the canyons as a result of population growth. It’s coming,” said McCandless, who also is a member of the Sandy City Council. “It gives us the potential to further transportation solutions in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. It gives us sanitary solutions, gives additional wilderness in areas that need to be protected.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alta Ski Area, pictured below Grizzly Gulch, will not be included in the proposed Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area.

Critics have long complained that the process that produced the legislation was rigged from the beginning to favor ski areas over small landowners. What started as a process to fix transportation issues, they allege, has morphed into a “land grab.”

“For the last three months, I have been asking the same question,” Vaughn Cox, a member of the Granite Community Council, told the commission Monday during a meeting at Cottonwood Heights City Hall. “How many acres of developable land are expected to be transferred to ski areas and what are their plans for development?”

Cox said he was frustrated that the neither the commission nor the U.S. Forest Service could answer those questions and speculated the resorts would acquire up to 400 acres for high-density development, inviting more people and cars into the already-choked canyons.

“If we transfer 400 acres, think of the number of hotels, the number of condominiums, the number of restaurants,” Cox said. “This will not be a great thing. This will be a great tragedy, and these canyons will be destroyed.”

Commission officials disputed Cox’s characterization of the land trades authorized in the draft measure.

“We will never hit 100 percent consensus,” McCandless said in an interview. “If we get to 70, I will be happy.”

Because of an agenda error, the 10-member commission could not vote Monday. It will reconvene in the next few weeks to finalize the plan, which was initiated under the Mountain Accord signed a few years ago by dozens of stakeholders.

The draft reprises legislation then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced two years ago, but with several key changes. When the commission finishes the proposal, establishing the Wasatch conservation area will be back in the hands of Congress, whose leadership could be in complete flux after Tuesday’s midterm elections.

“The designation itself says to the world and to us locally this area has magnificent recreation conservation values,” said commission Executive Director Ralph Becker, Salt Lake City’s former mayor. "And we are going to pay close attention here and assemble all our local, state and federal resources in a coordinated way to manage this area to make sure we protect the resources, provide recreational access, but not despoil either the resources or the recreational opportunities.”

The bill would be carried by Rep. Mia Love, assuming she wins re-election against Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams in Utah’s 4th Congressional District. If Love loses the close race, the legislation would likely be carried by whoever holds Chaffetz’s seat in the 3rd Congressional District, which covers the Central Wasatch. Chaffetz’s successor, Republican John Curtis, Provo’s ex-mayor, is expected to retain the seat in a challenge from Democrat James Singer.

The three other Cottonwood ski areas — Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude — remain in the legislation and are expected to participate in land exchanges. The deals are not acre for acre but rather value for value, so resorts would be giving up far more acreage on mountainsides in exchange for the precious buildable land that they currently lease from the Forest Service at their bases.

By excluding Alta from the legislation, the ski area could pursue ski-terrain expansion within its existing permit boundaries, such as Patsy Marley Ridge, which Alta currently uses for avalanche control, according to McCandless.

“The sad part is they don’t get the benefits of the conservation area,” McCandless said, “[such as] congressional approval to move forward with a land exchange.”

Other benefits for Alta would have been authorization for 100 new hotel units and other commercial development at its base, along with the water needed to accommodate that development, according to the terms hammered out in the Mountain Accord.

Alta prefers to remain in the conservation plan, according to General Manager Mike Maughan.

“Unfortunately, those who are unhappy with our decision and right to remove those private lands in Grizzly Gulch [from the exchange offerings] have become obstructive in moving this process forward,” he told the commission. “Instead of woking together for a win-win solution, they spread the rhetoric of half-truths and inaccurate information.”

Some environmental groups have accused the ski area of reneging on a deal and pushing development concepts that would harm the canyon.

The ski area holds 500 acres elsewhere in the canyon and another 1,300 acres of underground mineral rights outside Grizzly it would be willing to trade.

Other key provisions of the proposed legislation would:

• Create a 6,158-acre wilderness area encompassing Mount Aire and Grandeur Peak north of Mill Creek Canyon.

• Enlarge the existing Lone Peak Wilderness Area by adding foothill terrain near Draper

• Create an 1,800-acre White Pine special management area, which would function like wilderness with exceptions for heli-skiing and reservoir maintenance.

• Adjust existing wilderness boundaries along the foothills to accommodate bike riding, which is not allowed in designated wilderness.

• Allow ski areas to buy private land elsewhere in the canyons to use in land trades with the Forest Service.