Utahns of all political stripes enjoy trails that connect their communities to the outdoors, but efforts to expand one of the state’s premier trails threaten to divide two groups of stakeholders that are normally allied on public lands issues: trail users and wilderness advocates.

The Bonneville Shoreline Trail, which contours along parts of the Wasatch foothills, tracks the edge of what was once a vast lake. But most of it persists as mere jagged lines on a map, particularly in the southern half of Salt Lake County, where deep canyons meet a heavily populated valley.

There, the trail is more of an aspiration than an actual pathway because private properties, extending above Olympus Cove, Millcreek, Holladay, Sandy and other Salt Lake City suburbs, effectively push future trail development into steep, rugged higher ground.

To avoid such parcels, trail proponents and the U.S. Forest Service outlined routes that climb far above neighborhoods into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. But that presents another obstacle. In several key places, the trail would cross designated wilderness, which prohibits the use of mechanized equipment, including mountain bikes and motorized trail-building tools.

Trail advocates find it ironic that wilderness designations on the edge of Utah’s largest urban area are thwarting foothill trail development that could help alleviate the intense recreational pressure high up Mill Creek and Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, which see more traffic than the state’s “Mighty Five” national parks combined.

“We are the capital of outdoor recreation, but the bulk of our population has limited access to trails,” said Sarah Bennett, executive director of Trails Utah, who is pushing hard for the Shoreline Trail’s completion. “We need a corridor for human movement that can support our recreational lifestyle. The health benefits are incredibly important. We need to create more recreation opportunities away from our canyons and watersheds.”

The trail enjoys wide support, yet a solution now in the works is turning trail completion into a wedge issue.

A blocked trail

Conceived in the 1980s by Jim Byrne and Rick Reese, the Bonneville Shoreline Trail envisions a 280-mile, bike-accessible path stretching from Idaho to Nephi, tracking the ancient shoreline of Lake Bonneville along the Wellsville and Wasatch ranges. To date, 90 miles have been completed, according to Bennett, with approvals in place for another 23.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

South of Emigration Canyon, only fragments are in place because construction has been stymied by landowners demanding top dollar for easements and outright purchases, said John Knoblock, chairman of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee.

“It’s been two decades with almost no trail getting built in this section,” he said while visiting the Neffs trailhead last week.

At the base of Mount Olympus’ towering northwest face, Neffs Canyon would be a vital link for the trail, connecting it with Mill Creek Canyon’s trails. Neffs is, however, filled with obstacles, visible only as lines on a map. Homes abut near-vertical slopes, so the trail’s approved alignment passes through Mount Olympus Wilderness Area.

Because bikes would not be allowed to use this section, it has been nearly impossible to muster the resources needed to construct a trail from Mill Creek Canyon south to Corner Canyon, a segment that crosses current wilderness in 12 spots, explained Aaron Clark, policy manager for the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, is stepping forward with a solution that, on its face, seems commonsensical to many, yet appears bound to get mired in controversy.

Curtis plans to introduce a bill, known as the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Advancement Act, that would redraw wilderness boundaries to exclude the trail on the western periphery of the Mount Olympus, Twin Peaks and Lone Peak wilderness areas.

“This is an important piece of a much larger puzzle,” said Curtis, a former Provo mayor who grew up in Olympus Cove exploring the very terrain that the trail would cross. “The Bonneville Shoreline Trail ... is a tremendous asset for the state.”

Under his bill, fragments totaling 277 acres perched just above subdivisions and a busy highway would be swapped out of the wilderness areas in exchange for a 473-acre parcel in Mill Creek Canyon that was once part of the Boy Scouts’ Camp Tracy before the U.S. Forest Service acquired it in 2016.

Curtis’ proposal is harmless to wilderness preservation, right?

Wrong, says Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons. He and other wilderness activists fear the Curtis measure undermines the prospects of passing a comprehensive conservation plan for the Central Wasatch.

“They’re cherry-picking the removal of wilderness and the completion of a bike trail at the expense of the larger conservation vision,” Fisher said. “What we could call additions of wilderness that they’re throwing at this [is] table scraps. It’s not an equal equation.”

The bigger goal

The wilderness carveouts in Curtis’ bill are included in the proposed 80,000-acre Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act, which Save Our Canyons and other conservation groups embrace. That proposal stems from the Mountain Accord, a process launched in 2012 to identify solutions to the Cottonwood canyons transportation woes and land-use disputes plaguing the popular destinations in the Salt Lake Valley’s backyard.

It calls for the addition of 8,000 acres of wilderness, mostly on the divide between Mill Creek and Parleys canyons, capturing Grandeur Peak and Mount Aire, locking in ski area boundaries, and involving complicated land swaps.

Fisher fears that stand-alone legislation to support the shoreline trail would fragment the coalition of diverse interests that he hopes will persuade Congress to pass the bill establishing the conservation area.

“It could take the legs out” for the bigger bill, Fisher warned.

Lining up against the Curtis bill are, among others, the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, Friends of Alta and the Wasatch Mountain Club.

“The comprehensive package has something for everyone, hikers, resorts, lovers of wildlife, backcountry skiers, mountain bikers, families, landowners and downstream water users. This ‘something for everyone’ approach is the glue that keeps this vision relevant,” the groups wrote in a joint letter Friday to Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. “Carving out elements of the agreed actions leaves our communities at risk and perpetuates the piecemeal approach to land use in the foothills and canyons.”

Trail proponents, however, don’t want the shoreline project “held hostage” to further the larger conservation plan that appears to be going nowhere, and Curtis sees his proposal as a win for both outdoor recreation and wilderness.

“It’s hard to argue that we’re hurting wilderness by taking these couple hundred acres out. If you look at the Scout camp ... it should be wilderness,” Curtis said. “It just seems like such a natural, such a nice fit. I like the fact that it’s in such close proximity. It should be [in] wilderness, just as these portions of the trail should not be [in] wilderness.”

Curtis, who plans to hitch his trail proposal to a package of other recreation bills in Congress, has waited to file, hoping to see the two sides find harmony.

“But it is shaping up a little like, if we don’t jump in and do this, we’ll lose this window of opportunity,” he said. “We’re not asking for a reduction of wilderness. As a matter of fact, we’re doubling overall acres. So it’s not a sly ploy to get less wilderness.”

Additionally, the shoreline trail would connect local trail systems, such as Corner Canyon, City Creek and Mill Creek, enabling users to ride between communities, thereby eliminating the need to drive to distant trailheads.

“I see this as a good-faith effort to invest in the future of a trail that is now the central organizing feature of recreation master plans for almost every municipality along the Wasatch Front,” Bennett, of Trails Utah, said. “We are long overdue for comprehensive trail planning and funding.”