Birds vs. bikes? New battle brewing in Salt Lake Valley’s eastern foothills

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ezra Sagers, 17, of Eagle Mountain catches air while riding his bike at the Draper Cycle Park, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. Sagers says he rides at the park at least four days a week, in between high school and work time.

Tucked between tennis courts, ballfields, residential neighborhoods and a busy freeway where scrub oak gives way to open ground and wooded ravines is a surprisingly welcome place to observe birds.

During a recent visit to Olympus Hills Park, birder Kenny Frisch explained that 90 species have been recorded at the park located at the top of 4500 South in Holladay.

Turns out, such “edge habitat” invites not just large numbers of birds but also a variety because it supports species that come to nest, forage and pass through on migration, said Frisch, who works as a horticulturalist for the University of Utah campus. In just a few hours this past Saturday of peering through binoculars, Frisch observed 25 species.

The spot not only provides bird habitat; it’s undulating terrain inside a city also makes it an ideal location for a mountain bike park, according to advocates who have petitioned Salt Lake County to develop a pump track, trails and skills area on the park’s eastern 13 acres, the portion abutting Interstate 215.

“It’s a great opportunity for people in that neighborhood to not have to get into a car to drive somewhere to mountain bike. That park is really underutilized,” said proponent Kevin Dwyer, co-founder and executive director of the Salt Lake Valley Trails Society. The group formed years ago with a mission to develop bike trails within two miles, or riding distance, of all Salt Lake County residences.

“Everyone is excited about what it does for property values, quality of life and activating the community," Dwyer said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hayden Winthorpe, 17, of Bluffdate rides his bike at the Draper Cycle Park, Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

Holladay Mayor Rob Dahle and Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini support Dwyer’s vision for Olympus Hills but remain eager to hear from the public before any decisions are made.

The park’s western half is taken up with a baseball field, eight tennis courts, an unused water feature and a playground. The undeveloped eastern half, where the bike park would go, is encircled with a concrete walking path.

“I have long supported the idea of seeing if there is an appetite to take that acreage and try to maximize the use of it,” Dahle said. Two nearby high schools, Olympus and Skyline, have large mountain-bike-racing programs, and cycling has become popular.

“This park amenity is something we are missing in this part of the valley. There are two bike teams that could benefit from this type of facility," Silvestrini said. “Our challenge is where to put something like this."

Not everybody is excited about bike trails at this particular location, including some neighbors. Along with birding enthusiasts such as Frisch, many are pushing back against the proposal.

“I know there are concerns whether there is room. ... We have to make compromises to accommodate all kinds of recreational users,” Silvestrini said. “Although there is opposition, there may be enough support to make it happen.”

Some critics are unhappy they were denied a chance to help craft the proposal before it was rolled out for the public, but officials emphasized the proposal is not set in stone, and no money has been set aside to build it.

“Public process is an important part of determining the best alternatives," Dwyer said. "We expect the public will have some great input.”

Added Ken Richley, a planner with Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation: "Now we are in the mode of listening to the public. The plan is to have open houses, listen to concerns, address them if we can. We don’t plan to eliminate the hiking path. We think we can mitigate conflict points.”

Still, the proposed bike play area may have a hard time winning support from the 30-acre park’s neighbors, according to Holladay resident Jill Curtis.

“I use it after work every day to forget my cares as a physician,” said Curtis, a dermatologist who works with cancer patients and enjoys mountain biking.

“I know what the trails would look like in the height of summer when the dust kicks up,” said Curtis, who lives on the park’s western edge. “It would be excluding all other groups to allow one group to play there. No one is going to walk around there between the trails. That would be crazy.”

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Birders Heather Dove, right, and Kenny Frisch, spot a black-headed grosbeak Saturday at Olympus Hills Park in Holladay, where Salt Lake County officials are considering a proposed bike play area. Critics fear such a development would degrade habitat in one of the county’s best urban birding spots, where 90 species have been recorded.

The Great Salt Lake Audubon chapter has rallied its members to oppose the proposal.

“We have experienced a dramatic decline in bird habitat all over the Wasatch Front in the last 10 years. And this is one of the last little pockets that’s intact along the east bench,” said chapter President Heather Dove, who joined Frisch on the recent visit. “It’s an area that’s still very viable. We just need to leave it alone.”

She fears that cutting trails would damage roots, cause erosion and fragment habitat in ways that could make it unusable for many of the bird species that frequent the park.

“Given the lack of riparian habitat to attract certain types of birds and the park’s small size in an urban environment," Frisch said, “Olympus Hills Park is one of the more diverse hot spots in the county and an important migratory corridor for hawks and songbirds.”

Dwyer argues the concerns are not well founded, pointing to the bike play areas elsewhere such as Trailside Bike Park in Snyderville, Draper Cycle Park near Corner Canyon and the terrain park at the top of I Street in Salt Lake City. Nature appears to coexist with cycling at these spots, he said.

“This [bike] park is going to see less than six hours of use per day for nine months of the year,” Dwyer said. “People and birds can live together. It’s not one or the other.”

Dwyer suspects Olympus Hills is not even on the birding community’s radar. The park gets no mention on some online databases that describe places for observing birds. It does not appear on utahbirds.org, for example, which lists 51 birding sites in Salt Lake County, such as Parleys Historic Nature Park, Memory Grove, Wasatch Hollow, Liberty, Riverside and other urban parks.

”It’s confounding to us because there is no real history here. It seems like kind of a paper tiger. It’s not a real issue,” he said. “The birds aren’t going to go away."