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Another year, another plan for Salt Lake County’s Wasatch canyons

(Tribune file photo by Brian Maffly) A typical summer Saturday at Big Cottonwood Canyon's Donut Falls sees hundreds of visitors who make the one-mile hike in Cardiff Fork. Salt Lake County has adopted a new general plan for Big Cottonwood and three adjacent Wasatch canyons, where excessive recreational use and traffic threaten the very resources that make the canyons worthy places to tap for drinking water and enjoy nature.

Hardly a year goes by without a new plan emerging for the ever-busy alpine wonderland east of Salt Lake City, whose canyons and peaks provide both the water and recreation that make modern urban life possible and enjoyable in this arid region.

The latest comes from Salt Lake County whose elected council this week voted to approve a long-overdue general plan for the slice of the Wasatch Mountains inside Utah’s most populous region.

“The Wasatch canyons are one of the most defining features of the Salt Lake Valley,” said county Mayor Jenny Wilson, whose father, Ted, helped establish the Cottonwood canyons as a world-class climbing destination in the 1960s and later served as Salt Lake City mayor. “The preservation of this precious resource is a top priority. I am excited to implement the vision and strategies in this plan to protect the solitude, wildlife, scenery, water quality, and best snow on earth, that our canyons provide.”

The 215-page document outlines a vision for guiding land use in the popular canyons in ways that not only protect natural values, wildlife habitat and watersheds, but also enhance the outdoor opportunities that draw people into the canyons by the millions.

The plan covers Little and Big Cottonwood canyons, home to four major ski areas, Mill Creek Canyon, Parleys Canyon, as well as the foothills along Wasatch Boulevard. It covers the newly incorporated town of Brighton, but not Alta, which incorporated in 1970, years before the county established the so-called mountainous planning district.

Not only do these canyons provide an essential water source to many of the county’s cities, but they also are among the mostly heavily used national forest lands when it comes to outdoor activities, mostly hiking, skiing, cycling, climbing and just simply enjoying wildflowers.

The county's last general plan for its mountainous southeast quadrant was approved in 1989.

Back then, there were 400,000 fewer people living in Salt Lake County, hardly anyone bothered with Mill Creek Canyon, Utah's annual skier visits were half the 5 million seen last year, a day pass at Alta set you back 18 bucks and skis were straight and narrow.

These days, or at least the days before COVID-19, traffic averages 6,600 vehicles a day in Little Cottonwood Canyon, an ill-timed storm can result in a six-hour drive home, and little Mill Creek Canyon is overrun most weekends. The canyons now see at least 5 million recreation visits a year, stressing inadequate restrooms and trailheads.

The U.S. Forest Service administers nearly three-fourths of the 114,600-acre planning area. More than 36,000 acres are designated wilderness.

The new plan comes in the wake of several others focused on the Central Wasatch, including the Mountain Accord of 2015, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest plan revision of 2003, Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow of 2010, the Salt Lake City Watershed Master Plan of 1999, and, most recently, the Utah Department of Transportation’s plan for Little Cottonwood Canyon, now undergoing public comment through July 10.

“People are tired of plans. We hear that all the time,” said Catherine Kanter, the county’s deputy mayor for regional operations. “I’m tired of them myself, but that doesn’t stop people from engaging in these processes.”

At least 30 groups and hundreds of individuals participated in countless meetings during the county’s planning process over the past three years. In the end, the county’s Wasatch Canyons General Plan was approved with little pushback, most likely because it advanced a vision and values most people would applaud and leaves the sticky details for future policymakers to figure out.

While it avoids the controversial questions of tolling and land exchanges, the plan does call for improved transit, expanded to year-round service.

“We’d like to see less vehicles in the canyon. We’d like to see higher occupancy of vehicles,” said county planner Jake Young. “Parking is the big challenge. Many people don’t want to see additional parking stalls in the canyon. We understand that, so the recommendation is to have ‘parking mobility centers’ not in the canyon and not at the mouth, but near the mouth. The gravel pit near Big Cottonwood Canyon is a great opportunity for that.”

Officials stressed that the new county plan is not a "to-do list” laden with specific proposals for solving the canyons’ transportation woes or land-use controversies, but rather guidelines, or agreed-upon principles, for developing credible solutions.

“It creates that tapestry for future conversation,” Wilson said, “so you can drill down when those issues come up with a more complete, more relevant and more current framework for future issues as it relates to the specifics within the canyons.”

Wilson and the county’s planning staff also emphasize it’s a “living, breathing” vision statement that will help leaders and planners make the tough future decisions over parking, road improvements, transit alternatives and more.

“It’s also supposed to be a document that can evolve over time," Kanter said. "One of the biggest problems with our 1989 plan is that it was 30 years old. That shouldn’t happen again. Our new plan specifically says that it’s going to be reviewed by various groups annually. And it’s going to be updated every five years with a major update no more than 15 to 20 years down the road.”

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