Utah’s GOP lawmakers dump on conservation plan for the Cottonwood canyons, but defenders says criticisms are misguided

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tailings from an old mine frame the upper basin of Grizzly Gulch on the other side of the road from Alta Ski Resort on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018. Alta Ski Area will not be included in the proposed Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area.

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday piled on a recently unveiled conservation proposal for the Central Wasatch Mountains, contending it could do more to harm than enhance Utah’s increasingly crowded ski resorts in the Cottonwood canyons.

Topping the list of complaints were the plan’s lack of consensual support, its potential to overburden the public lands with yet more bureaucracy and its failure to accommodate Alta Ski Area’s needs. The famed resort either asked to be removed or was excluded from the plan — depending on who’s telling the story — over its refusal to trade its private holdings in Grizzly Gulch. Alta balked at such a deal because it wants to maintain the option of running a lift up the side canyon that reaches into Solitude, according to General Manager Mike Maughan.

The proposed Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area, which excludes both the town of Alta and its namesake ski area, would encompass 80,000 acres of national forest east of Salt Lake City. It would expand existing designated wildness by 8,000 acres; establish a wildernesslike designation in White Pine Canyon near Snowbird; lock the canyons' three other ski resorts' boundaries, while authorizing land swaps that would allow resorts to own land at their bases; and adjust wilderness boundaries to accommodate mountain bikes on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

The proposal is packaged as legislation that Utah’s congressional delegation would introduce in Congress, where it would be subject to revision.

But Republican members of the Legislature’s Commission for the Stewardship for Public Lands found much to criticize.

“We have seen that [forested] areas that aren’t managed, that don’t have firebreaks, we end up with catastrophic fires,” outgoing Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, argued at its meeting Wednesday. “I don’t think it would serve anyone to burn up that area.”

He went on to blast the broad prohibition on mountain biking in designated wilderness, suggesting the Central Wasatch legislation would be an opportune time to repeal what he called “a stupid law.” Federal law bans mechanized transport in wilderness and, according to current interpretation, that includes bicycles.

Utah’s public lands commission was impaneled a few years ago to explore ways to increase state and local control over federally managed acreage, and that agenda was on full display Wednesday.

The conservation proposal would limit local authorities’ ability to protect the canyons from wildfire through tree thinning and removal of downed wood, commissioners said. An intense blaze would damage the watershed, whose protection should be the No. 1 priority, Noel reasoned.

Woodcutting already is prohibited in the canyons to safeguard the purity of the water pouring out of Little and Big Cottonwood canyons, sustaining Utah’s largest urban area.

“There hasn’t been timber harvested in this area for a very, very long time. It’s in the Salt Lake City [municipal] watershed,” said Chris McCandless, a Sandy councilman who heads the Central Wasatch Commission and is a leading architect of the conservation plan. “It wouldn’t be allowed anyway because it would degrade the headwaters of our system.”

While both Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County embrace the conservation plan, many of the county’s community councils, particularly Big Cottonwood and Granite, oppose it.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, an avid skier and mountain biker who lives near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, sat in on Wednesday’s meeting and actively participated, sometimes challenging the assertions made by his Republican colleagues. He is deeply concerned about the impact a big fire would have on the canyons, but he noted that these steep, rock-studded gorges don’t have much contiguous woodlands.

“This is rugged country, [with] a lot of rock and a lot of natural firebreaks,” Niederhauser said. “This is not an area where you would harvest timber. You can’t even get to the timber.”

The Sandy Republican also noted that these canyons' steep rocky terrain is lousy for mountain biking, so there is little point in opening Wasatch wilderness to cycling.

The meeting room was packed with supporters of the conservation plan, including members of Save Our Canyons and Wasatch Backcountry Alliance.

Save Our Canyons Executive Director Carl Fisher chided the commission for staging such a one-sided discussion, which largely featured critics of the plan. “It stands in stark contrast to the work that the Central Wasatch Commission has done, where every voice is heard, invited to dig deeper into the issues in depth and strive for broad consensus. The parties you have invited to this roast represent the uncompromising interests, unwilling to give, hungry to take,” Fisher said. “They’ve brought issues to light, which were heard, deliberated and incorporated when feasible.”

Commissioners, in turn, rebuked Fisher for suggesting they rigged the meeting.

Wondering if Save Our Canyons was acting as a front for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, emailed him a request to identify all the group’s donors who have given more than $2,500.

The acrimony on display at the Capitol is an ironic result for a process that started several years ago with the Mountain Accord, which brought together more than 150 people with divergent interests to agree on solutions for the canyons’ woes.

Now participants-turned-critics, such as Salt Lake County Councilman Richard Snelgrove, insist the process has abandoned its original goal of solving the congestion in favor of layering up regulations where there are already plenty.

“Is there anything wrong with the way the Forest Service is managing these lands? Why have a new level of bureaucracy. These are uncharted waters,” Snelgrove said. “It brings up more questions than answers. What are the unintended consequences? Shouldn’t our top priorities be environment, air quality and traffic congestion.”

Maughan argued it would be premature to establish a conservation area before tackling the canyons’ core challenges, starting with traffic and parking. The plan could wind up precluding good solutions to congestion, according to Maughan. He contended a lift up Grizzly Gulch connecting Alta and Solitude could help reduce cross-canyon traffic between Little and Big Cottonwood.

While the Central Wasatch conservation proposal is a land bill, not a transportation bill, supporters counter, it does offer a framework that could facilitate solutions. But after several years, time is running out to enact the vision spelled out in the Mountain Accord.

“This won’t happen again,” McCandless said. “We will either move this forward, or … our attempts in the future will fail.”